Coffeehouse Painting

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Iran’s Ancient Cultural, Artistic and Traditional Legacy

Behdad Kadkhodazadeh
Master of Calligraphy and Visual Arts Researcher

Coffeehouses came into being in Iran under Shah Tahmasb I of Safavid dynasty (1523-1576) in the city of Qazvin, but reached the peak of their popularity under Shah Abbas I (1587-1628) and in the last century of the Safavid rule in the city of Isfahan. 

It was then that in addition to their main function, coffeehouses were also used for cultural purposes. Poets read their poems in coffeehouses in order to be heard and criticized by audience, and reading poems from Iran’s book of epics, Shahnameh, turned into one of the common traditions in these places. During that period, instead of gathering at the Safavid court, poets and artists came together in coffeehouses.

Of course, at the beginning, most people going to coffeehouses were mostly from affluent social classes, especially government officials, but by and by, lay people, especially speakers and businesspeople frequented coffeehouses to pass the time of day. Painters were also present in this environment in order to draw pictures on the basis of the stories of Shahnameh as well as religious and Quranic themes. They even accepted orders to draw painting.

Following development of coffeehouses in the Safavid era, the art of common painting got separated from painting that was special to the royal court and a style of popular painting was established, whose main venue was coffeehouses. The existence of coffeehouses and people’s gathering in these places gradually brought together narrators, who were previously going about in streets and neighborhoods.

Following the rise of the Qajar dynasty (1760-1886), coffeehouses once more thrived as an urban institution and this prosperity reached its acme under Nasser-ed-Din Shah (1847-1895).

At this time, coffeehouses had different applications and turned into a place for passing leisure time as well as for men to do business and settle their problems there. 

At the same time, people were made aware of what was going on in their city and neighborhood, came to know about their history, culture and religion, and came together to engage in traditional activities as well as religious and non-religious ceremonies.

In the time of constitutional revolution, coffeehouses were among the most important gathering places for people. At the height of constitutionalism and in parallel to public awakening and growth of freedom seeking ideas, epic stories and tales of freedom seeking as well as religious and patriotic struggles turned into a means of informing people and inspiring them with a sense of struggle for their goals.

The Qajar era must be considered as the zenith of religious Shia ceremonies, especially mourning over the Karbala incident, which was also reflected in visual arts, especially painting.

In this period, a form of painting, which was committed to all logical values of religious and traditional art of Iran, came into being as a result of necessities and due to people’s demand and also as a show of respect for their beliefs. This art has been called with various names including coffeehouse painting, fictional painting, or popular painting.

Coffeehouse painting is an extension of traditional painting of the Iranian nation, which developed in parallel to Iran’s official painting, which was mostly focused on portrait and murals. At that time, paintings were seldom exposed to public view and after many centuries, the new style allowed lay people to consider visual arts as part of their daily culture and get used to it.

The prime time for flourishing of this way of popular painting was the Qajar era, especially later years of the Qajar period and in coffeehouses of big cities. It was in this period that house painters like their peers in other professions, flocked to coffeehouses and spent their leisure time with narrators, those reading poems from Shahnameh, and eulogizers. A large number of these dexterous painters came from this group of house painters and those painters, whose main specialty was to paint on plaster and tiles.

This group of painters gradually gave up house painting and spent more time on Persian miniature and from that time on, their main profession was to sit in coffeehouses and draw paintings on walls and canvas. Most painters following this school started to serve coffeehouses and drew paintings on their order through which they earned money in return for their paintings and made a living.

Two important schools of verbal and visual arts, that is, narration and painting, grew and thrived in the coffeehouse institution and every one of those schools gave birth to prominent and great artists.

Famous pioneers of these school were two painters called “Hossein Qollar-Aqasi” and “Mohammad Modabber.” Master Qollar-Aqasi demonstrated unparalleled skill and artisanship in the art of portrayal and creation of heroes as well as pictures of war and celebrations, while Master Mohammad Modabber showed the same degree of skill in making paintings depicting epic figures in the history of Shia Islam.

Source: Hamshahri Online
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

*Multimedia: Iranian Painting

*Photo Credit: Wikipedia,, Shahnameh-n.blogsky,,, Hamshahrionline

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