Baltimore, MD—The great Mughal, Safavid, and Ottoman empires flourished during a time of rapid change and artistic innovation in the Islamic world, as people, ideas, and technologies spread across Europe and Asia. At the heart of the empires’ courts were networks of individuals—writers, poets, artists, craftsmen—who produced extraordinary works of art for the ruling elite. From November 8, 2015, through January 31, 2016, the Walters Art Museum will present Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts, the first major exhibition to focus on these influential and often charismatic individuals.

The free exhibition features more than 120 works including paintings, calligraphy, textiles, ceramics, and jeweled luxury objects. Dating from the 16th to the 18th century, these exquisite works of art were created in historic India, Iran, and Turkey, a vast geographic area that extends from the Bay of Bengal to the Mediterranean Sea.

Pearls on a String seeks to broaden public engagement with the cultural histories of Muslim societies by demonstrating how human imagination and collaboration can ignite extraordinary artistic creativity,”  said Amy Landau, associate curator of Islamic and South Asian art and curator of the exhibition.

Three Vignettes

Pearls on a String is organized in a series of vignettes that spotlight a 16th-century writer, a 17th-century artist, and an 18th-century patron. Through poignant quotes, startling juxtapositions of artwork, and subtle references to the protagonists’ architectural surroundings, the exhibition will offer a rare glimpse into their worlds. The individuals also inform the exhibition’s poetic title: viewed independently, each is a gleaming “pearl,” yet collectively they constitute an even more vibrant “string of pearls.”

  • Writer Abu’l Fazl (1551–1602): A prolific writer, visionary historian and intimate at the court of the third Mughal emperor Akbar in India, he was the most powerful voice in defining Akbar’s policies of political inclusion in the context of a demographically diverse empire.
  • Painter Muhammad Zaman (c. 1650–1700): At the court of Safavid ruler Shah Sulayman, this imperial artist radically changed the course of Persian painting by introducing farangi-sazi, a European style, into the Persian tradition.
  • Patron Sultan Mahmud I (1696–1754): An Ottoman ruler and active patron of the arts and architecture, this once-forgotten sultan commissioned fanciful jeweled objects as well as lavish libraries and mosques that define Istanbul’s skyline to this day.

“The Walters’ initiative to organize its first international loan exhibition dedicated to Islamic art springs from the quality of the museum’s collection, its intellectual resources and its dedication to providing free access,” said Julia Marciari-Alexander, the Andrea B. and John H. Laporte Director of the Walters Art Museum.

Loans and Support

Loans from national and international institutions include the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the British Library, London; the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Approximately a third of the works are from the collection of the Walters Art Museum, which has one of the most comprehensive collections of Islamic art in North America.

The exhibition was organized by the Walters Art Museum in partnership with the Asian Art Museum, and will be on view at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco February 25 through May 8, 2016.

Pearls on a String has been generously supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Celebrating Fifty Years of Excellence; the Institute of Museum and Library Services; the National Endowment for the Arts; the Gary Vikan Exhibition Endowment Fund; Ellen and Edward Bernard; Douglas and Tsognie Hamilton; the Herb Silverman Fund; the Maryland Humanities Council and several anonymous donors.

Accompanying Publication

Written by leading scholars in the field, the 272-page illustrated book presents new research and expands the breadth of the exhibition, covering the 10th to the 18th century. The book is published in association with University of Washington Press and available for purchase in the Walters Art Museum Store ($60, hardcover).

Related Programs

To enhance the understanding of Islamic cultures, the Walters will present a series of engaging programs, including classical Persian poetry readings, calligraphy workshops, a panel discussion, and a family festival.

Walters Collection of Islamic Art

Spanning from the first centuries of Islam to the 19th century, the collection of approximately 1,200 Islamic objects features works of exceptional quality, including Persian and Mughal illustrated manuscripts, along with objects from every major region of the Islamic world.