Part I : Iran
Fingernail art is a little known and studied Persian artistic medium, which was used in making calligraphy and drawing artworks, predominantly in the second half of the 19th century.
Part one of this article will briefly introduce the technique and its history, before discussing the prevalent themes and subjects. It will then present an exquisite album at the Harvard Art Museums, which contains unique examples of fingernail calligraphic scripts. Part two will consider use of the technique in countries neighbouring Iran (then Persia), such as India, Turkey, and Afghanistan.
Persian arts of the book as reflected in manuscripts have often included sumptuous decorations and lavish use of pure gold and precious pigments, such as lapis lazuli (for blue). However, the technique I am going to discuss here is at the other end of the spectrum: with no ink, pigments, gold or brushes, this medium is so minimalistic it involves only a sheet of plain paper and the artist’s fingers.
Fingernail art master, Naser Javaherpour, shows how the technique is done.
This technique is probably the least familiar in Islamic art, even among experts of the field, and even in its birthplace, Iran. It presents a three dimensional effect on paper, created with nail pressure from both sides in order to make an embossed effect. It is rendered with the thumb and usually the ring finger; hence, the name “Fingernail Art” (fig. 1).
Despite its uniqueness and significance, scholarship does not have much to say about it, except for a few short articles in Persian and a few catalogue entries in the West. In almost all these accounts we read that fingernail calligraphy was first deployed in the late Safavid period (17th-18th century) in Iran, but no references are provided.
Fingernail artworks either display text, in the form of calligraphy, or a representational composition, involving human figures, animals or flowers. The embossed effect on the paper creates a relief – like bas-relief on marble – in which instead of ink or colours outlining the forms and shapes, the eye is presented with a delicate interaction between light and shadow. A ‘tactile vision’, one might call it (fig. 2). Therefore, the viewing angle and light play significant roles in the presentation of fingernail artworks.
The few existing articles on the subject provide no evidence of this technique being practiced prior to the 19th century, although as mentioned, the secondary sources usually indicate a rough date for the emergence of the technique as the late Safavid period (1501-1736). In fact, there is no recorded history regarding the invention of fingernail calligraphy in primary sources. However, in the Gulistan-i Hunar, (Garden of Art: an art historical source on Persian calligraphers and painters, composed by Qazi Ahmad Munshi Qumi in the 16th century), the author cites a poem by the Safavid prince Bahram Mirza (d. 1549), in which he refers to the prowess of Nizam al-Din Bukhara’i, a master calligrapher whose innovation was writing with his fingertip. Although some scholars interpreted it as writing “with fingernail”, the author believes that Nizam al-Din Bukhara’i was very likely using his finger as a conventional pen by dipping his fingertip in ink and practicing calligraphy that way.
The earliest evidence I have been able to find is a mention of a poet-cum-calligrapher as skilled in fingernail calligraphy. Aqa Muhammad Kazim Valah Isfahani (1739–1814) was a prominent calligrapher and a poet, active in the 18th and early 19th centuries. This means he was alive at the time of the Afshar, Zand and early Qajar dynasties, which followed the Safavids. The author of the Atlas of Calligraphy, Habibullah Faza’ili (1922–1997) reports that he had seen a work of fingernail calligraphy signed by Valah in a private collection. Unfortunately we do not know which collection he was referring to, but based on this evidence, we can deduce that fingernail art had emerged and was practiced by the time of the Afsharids, although we have no image of such an early example.
Unlike fingernail art’s uncertain background, there is no doubting its pinnacle was in the 19th century in the Qajar period. We witness this in the extant albums dispersed around the world.
To engage in fingernail art, the artist tended to be highly skilled in calligraphy and drawing. We know of several eminent masters of fingernail art in both calligraphy and drawing, such as Mirza ‘Ali Akbar Naqqash (1808-1894), Muhammad Kazim (1830-1897), Muhammad Husayn Shirazi (fl. 1279/1862), and Princess Fakhri (1796–1858), who was a female royal artist, to whom I will return shortly. We are aware of these artists not from biographical accounts, but through their signatures, mostly found in albums in the Golestan Palace Library (fig. 3).
The Golestan Palace in Tehran holds the richest collection of fingernail art in the world with 15 very high quality albums, which were probably produced or compiled for royal libraries of the Qajar kings, judging by the notes or seals they bear. They include royal portraits, such as the portrait of Fath ‘Ali Shah (1772–1834) (fig. 4, 4a and 4b), and several portraits of Nasir al-Din Shah (1831–1896) (fig. 5). The earliest date mentioned on the works is 1850, and some carry the royal seal impression or inspection notes with the date 1865; so, they were probably produced in or around this 15-year period.
The portrait of Fath ‘Ali Shah in fingernail technique by ‘Ali Akbar seems to have been copied from a painting similar to the one on right.
The most significant album among those at the Golestan Palace is perhaps the one exhibiting the skills of a female artist: Princess Fakhri, the daughter of Fath ‘Ali Shah, who was also known as Fakhr-i Jahan Khanum (Pride of the World). Her father built the Niavaran Palace in Tehran for her. It is a beautiful and famous palace situated in today’s most affluent area of Tehran. She was extremely wealthy and had many staff working in her palace, but whenever her father was her guest, she used to cook herself and serve from gold dishes.
Here we see one of Fakhr-i Jahan’s drawings, depicting a European woman, with the artist’s signature at the bottom (fig. 6). Not only was she skillful in drawing, but she was also a master calligrapher, and not just in one script, but in several! The image below (fig. 7) is the beautifully illuminated frontispiece of the same album, featuring five different scripts in one frame: thuluth, nastaʿliq, shikasta, riqaʿ, and naskh. She does not provide dates on any of her works, but the terminus ante quem is the year she died, 1858.
Another fingernail album by a female artist is housed in the library of the Khanqah of Shaykh Safi in Tehran.
In the Qajar period we see common themes and similar designs repeated in various artistic media. Themes commonly found in figurative drawings in many albums include European male and female figures, irises, and ‘birds and flowers’, a particularly prevalent theme in Qajar art. As an example, I can point to two very similar drawings in two distinct albums: one in an album of 16 fingernail artworks at the New York Public Library (Per. 27) (fig. 8), and the other in an album at the Cambridge University Library (Or. 2509) containing 3 fingernail artworks (fig. 9). These two drawings of birds and flowers are so close in size and design that they could well have been copied from the same model, or even one from the other.
Another recurring subject is the figure of the Prophet’s cousin, ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, who is the first Imam of Shi‘i Muslims. He is usually depicted in a seated position with a halo around his head and his famous sword on his lap. Sometimes the figure is flipped from right to left, as is the case in the albums of New York Public Library and the Cambridge University Library (fig. 10) (and they are different in size, proportions and the background setting), and the latter is very similar to a drawing with the same subject in the Tehran National Library (fig. 11).
In a few cases, ‘Ali features in different compositions. In an album at the Golestan Palace Library, he is illustrated as a mounted figure with his famous sword, a lion’s head and an angel (fig. 12). Oxford Ashmolean Museum (EA 1961.64) has a fingernail artwork, signed by Homa and dated 1874, depicting ‘Ali in a seated position with his sword in his hands, and his two sons alongside him, together with two winged angels (fig. 13). It also presents a well-known hadith from the Prophet about the eminence of ‘Ali: “I am the city of knowledge and ‘Ali is its gate.”
In addition to the representations of the first Shi‘i Imam and the mentioned hadith about him, there are two albums in the Malek Library in Tehran (nos. 6008 and 2769) containing calligraphic specimens of the same hadith and prayers associated with or attributed to ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (fig. 14). Some other works also contain religious content, such as a manuscript of the Asma’ al-Husna, containing 99 names of God in the Khudabakhsh Library in Patna, India (ms. no. 3980).
European paintings were a source of inspiration for Qajar artists and fingernail artists were no exception. They copied directly from or were inspired by European art, and in some cases combined this with traditional subjects and elements. As an example, I can refer to a drawing of two lovers, floating in the air, similar to those found in Chagall’s paintings (fig. 15). Interestingly, it is very probably copied from a depiction of “Paolo and Francesca” in The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri which was a popular love story in the 19th century (fig. 16). There are several works that show their souls being carried away by an angel, among which the one painted by Gustave Doré in 1863 is probably the most famous. The fingernail drawing seems to have been copied from or inspired by an earlier example of the same scene.
“Paolo and Francesca Da Rimini”, from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (d. 1321).
Harvard Fingernail Albums
There are two albums at the Harvard Art Museums containing beautiful fingernail artworks. A Qajari album of drawings and paintings (1960.161) containing two fingernail drawings on ff. 39v and 40r was published in 2017 with scholarly articles, edited by David Roxburgh. In addition to that, we have another album from the collection of the late Ezzat-Malek Soudavar, on long-term loan to the Harvard Art Museums (30.2015). Daughter of the Malek Museum’s founder, Ezzat-Malek Soudavar (1913–2014) was a connoisseur of Persian art and an immensely influential art collector, whose collections of astounding art objects have been donated to and found in various museums around the world.
The Harvard album comprises 19 folios, showcasing figural and floral compositions, and works of calligraphy. The artist has exhibited his mastery in four different scripts of Persian calligraphy: nastaʿliq, thulth, naskh, and shikasta, of sublime quality. It contains an example of a calligraphic riddle, which is not easy to decipher because of the complicated way in which the letters are connected (fig. 17).
There is a calligraphic piece in thuluth script in the album, which resembles tombstones in marble with bas-relief inscriptions (fig. 18). Unfortunately, the artist has not left his signature, nor a date on the artworks, but on the first flyleaf there is a note which provides the date Jumada II 1284/October 1867 (fig. 19), which is precisely when fingernail art was at its peak. It is probable that the artist himself added the note, but, unfortunately, there is no further evidence for the identity of the artist.
This album has another significant feature: a folio inscribed in Siyaq script (fig. 20). Siyaq is a coded language for accounting and trading records, which was used in the Qajar and earlier periods. This example is an official financial report of the trade of grains and taxes in some villages in Iran. Not only does the artist display that in addition to all calligraphic scripts he knew the siyaq script, but he also shows off his impeccable rendering! This is the only example of siyaq in fingernail art among all known albums and single folios in collections around the world, which makes Harvard Art Museum’s EMS fingernail album unique.
 Artists sometimes use a stylus and other utensils with pin-like points.
 In 2018, Christian Gruber wrote about a couple of fingernail artworks in the catalogue of the exhibition L’Empire des Roses, at the Louvre Museum, where she discusses two folios from the Golestan Palace albums. Fellinger, Gwénaëlle, and Carol Guillaume, L’Empire des Roses: chefs d’œuvre de l’art persan du XIXe siècle (Snoeck, 2018): 77–78. Her recent study on fingernail art has not yet been published. Mitra Kahvand has written her Master’s dissertation on fingernail art in 2015 (Iranology Foundation), which is not published either.
 Qumī, Qāżi Aḥmad, Gulistān-i hunar, ed. A. Suhaylī Khwānsārī (Tehran, 1383/2005): 33.
 In Minorsky’s translation (via Russian) of the Gulistan-i Hunar, he translated sar-i angusht (fingertip) as “bare finger” (Minorsky, V. Calligraphers and Painters (Washington, D.C., 1959): 75), but Clément Huart translated it as “fingernail” (Huart, C. Les Calligraphes et les Miniaturistes de l’Orient Musulman (Paris, 1908): 253). Annemarie Schimmel tends to agree with Huart (Schimmel, A. Calligraphy and Islamic Culture (London, 1984): 32).
 Not to be mistaken with Mirza Muhammad Yusuf Valah Isfahani, who composed the history book, Khuld-i Barin in 1667-8.
 Fażā’ilī, Ḥ. Aṭlas-i Khaṭṭ (Tehran, 1362/1983): 410.
 I am grateful to Dr. Ilka Voermann for her help identifying the subject of this artwork.
 For more on calligraphic riddles, see Fażā’ilī (1362/1983): 659–61.
 I am thankful to the Harvard Art Museums conservation team for their collaboration to my research on this manuscript.