Mohammad Modabber and Hossein Qollar-Aqasi were two artists who raised the traditional Coffeehouse painting to the pinnacles of success. Coffeehouse painting needs to be studied in terms of its singular narration. Before oil painting became a current practice, Persian painting relied heavily on inscriptions. During the reign of Shah Abbas Safavid and with the emergence of the court figurative painting, illustration of hand-written books was no longer in great demand. The art that emerged during the Constitution Movement and was in line with popular and religious taste, inspired by conventional landscape painting and created by uneducated painters, was later to be known as the Coffeehouse School of Art. Painters who practiced this art chose to name it the “Image Making” School to distinguish it from realist painters who portrayed objective reality. These artists exploited religious, epic, and mythical figures as well as methods used in the Coffeehouse painting, which had its roots in Persian painting and age-old murals, to create a canvas that could sometimes be narrated. In effect, one of the unique qualities of the Coffeehouse painting is its connection to narration which in itself is a valuable theatrical tradition. It is called the Coffeehouse School of Painting as large painting canvases are not meant to be hung at home or in a spacious hall, but to be used for narration in coffeehouses.
To achieve this, the artist had come up with a style that was a combination of deep-rooted Persian art and naturalist achievements of western art. There is an element of landscape perspective that although does not adhere to the techniques employed in perspective painting, it clearly indicates the depth of field. Techniques of chiaroscuro are taken into consideration in portrait painting, while to remain faithful to the standards of character perspective, major characters are depicted larger and less important ones appear to be smaller. This innovation has its roots in the old tradition of Persian mural painting.
Another unique quality of Coffeehouse painting is to ascribe the names of the characters next to them to ensure an easier connection to the audience. Use of manuscripts and their connection to the picture follows the precedent in Persian art where poetry is used along with paintings and inscription-like works. Contemporaneity is another concept that Coffeehouse painting has borrowed from Persian painting, i.e. one of the characters in the story may have been represented in different parts of a painting and in varied situations. All of this contributes to our understanding of Coffeehouse painting as the last school prior to the emergence of the Iranian modern movement whose adherents strived to maintain links to the indigenous, grassroots audience.
The present painting is a rare work of Mohammad Modabber, a significant member of the Coffeehouse School of Painting, depicting a story from the Shahnama. Mohammad Modabber depicted the Court of Manouchehr Shah in the present painting. Modabber, who is mostly famous for depiction of scenes from Karbala, epitomized the court of a Persian mythological king in this unique painting. Rostam’s father, Zāl, at a young age fell in love with Roudabeh, who was the daughter of the king of Kabul, Mehrab. Zāl’s father, Sām, warned him that Manouchehr Shah would never permit the marriage with one of Zahhāk’s grandchildren. Thus Zāl was admitted to Manouchehr Shah’s court to ask for her hand in marriage. Aided by the court astrologists, Manouchehr Shah – discovered that Zāl and Roudabeh would give birth to a child who would become the greatest hero of Persia, and thus approved of this auspicious marriage.
Modabber’s painting captures the moment that Zāl is admitted to the court of Manouchehr Shah. Famous heroes and the nobles are witnesses to their marriage. Amir Kaveh the Blacksmith, his son (Gharen), Keshvad (Goudarz’s father), Sām, Gorgin, and Nariman (Zāl’s grandfather) with his mythical mace that is to be inherited by Rostam. Following earlier painters of the school, Modabber is changing Ferdowsi’s story to create a more plausible representation for the audience. In the Shahnama’s original story, for instance, Sām is not present in this scene, not is every single Persian hero named. The painter is making modifications to highlight the grandeur and magnificence of Manouchehr’s court.
The significance of the painting lies in the fact that the artist painted the casque and armor of Persian heroes in a manner similar to that of the warriors who fought in Karbala, thus linking a mythological account to a religious epic to enhance the grandeur of these heroes as well as Manouchehr’s court. These spectacular techniques are some of the reasons that the present painting can be perceived to be an outstanding work of art.