SOAS University of London


A Short History of Qajar Iran

Between 1785 and 1925, Iran was unified under the Qajar dynasty. In these 140 years Iran made the transition from feuding tribal confederations to centralised monarchy and, finally, to constitutional parliament. The Qajars, originally a Turkic tribe, imposed unity on a country that had been in turmoil for much of the sixth century, rekindling an image of imperial splendour last seen under the Safavids in the 17th century.

Under the Qajars Iran renewed its contacts with the European powers, but increasingly became a pawn in the Great Game between Russia and Britain. The West's increasing encroachment into Iran's military, diplomatic and commercial affairs was paralleled by growing western influence on the art and customs of the Qajar court.

In a Muslim society where there was a tension between the licence of painting and the strictures of Islam, the Qajars are noted for their vigorous, often resplendent tradition of figurative painting. The works of art in this exhibition convey the range of this tradition and illustrate four principal themes:

  • the use of imperial portraits for political ends
  • the changing personality and pretensions of successive Shahs
  • a widening interest in portraiture and the figural arts
  • and the broader changes among the Qajar elite society as it adapted to European innovations.

The 'Peacock Throne': Fath 'Ali Shah and the Theatre of Diplomacy

The Qajar rise was rapid. Within five years of his release from prison, the tribal leader Aqa Muhammad Khan Qajar (r.1785-97) had overthrown the Zand dynasty and founded the Qajar dynasty, ushering in more than a century of stability. Aga Muhammad Khan was childless, having been castrated in his youth, and the succession passed to his nephew Fath 'Ali Shah (r.1797-s834), who revived the ancient traditions of Persian kingship.

Fath 'Ali Shah established a centralised bureaucracy and a standing army, but his authority was compromised by several factors, including dynastic rivalries, the Shi'ite religious establishment, and the vulnerability of Iran's borders. Two wars with Russia over the territories of northwestern Iran and the Caucasus, in 5805-13 and 5826-28, resulted in the defeat of the Persian forces and critical territorial losses.

Fath Ali Shah's imperial pretensions found expression in an active building programme in the Qajar capital of Tehran and the provinces, in a highly choreographed court ceremonial, and in a revival of the arts

He encouraged poetry and the visual arts, even reviving the art of rock-relief sculpture after a lapse of 1200 years: he placed reliefs of himself alongside those of his predecessors, the Achaemenids (550-335 BC) and Sasanians (AD 221-642). He also used large-scale frescoes and canvasses to create an imperious personal image. These works were used to adorn his new palaces and to distribute to foreign powers. Portraits of Fath 'Ali Shah were sent, for example, to Russia, Britain, France and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Inheritance: Safavid and Zand influences

Fath 'Ali Shah was nor the first Iranian ruler to use life-size figural imagery. His paintings continue a tradition that can be traced back to sixth-century Safavid Isfahan, when Persian artists adopted the European medium of oil-on-canvas, as well as European approaches to modelling and perspective. This Safavid-European tradition survived the turmoils of the second quarter of the sixth century to flourish under the Zand dynasty (1750-1794) in a form that influenced the art of the early Qajars.

In 1722 the Safavids were overthrown by Afghan invaders, who were in turn expelled by Nadir Shah Afshar (r.1736-47). Despite these upheavals, and severe economic decline, the traditions of late Safavid art survived under Nadir Shah, whose conquest of Delhi also opened the way to influences from India.

The Safavid-European tradition of monumental figural painting was revived under the Zand dynasty, as part of an overall revival of the arts. Under the patronage of Karim Khan Zand (r.1750-79) Shiraz became the centre of artistic life in Iran, and his building programme in the city emulated, on a modest scale, features of Safavid Isfahan. Karim Khan was also a noted patron of painting. Two painters in particular, Muhammad Sadiq (fl.1740s- 1790s) and Mirza Baba (fl.1789-1810), captured an image of lyrical and amatory contentment that characterises the Zand period.

There is an unquestionable Zand inheritance in early Qajar art. It was symbolic that the founder of the Qajar dynasty, Aqa Muhammad Khan, decorated his Tehran audience hall with paintings looted from the Zand palace; and Mirza Baba went on to become Fath 'Ali Shah's first painter-laureate (naqqash-bashi). Yet there is a significant difference between Zand and early Qajar art.

Karim Khan, who preferred the title Regent (Vakil) to that of Shah, did not demand that his painters prettify his appearance; he was happy to be shown at an informal and unpretentious gathering, in a modest architectural setting. The tone of these Zand paintings contrasts sharply to the later vainglorious images of Fath Au Shah and his court.

The Theatre of War

Since the seventeenth century, the Iranians had often seen Europe as a potential ally against the Ottoman threat. In the early 19th century, however, Iran perceived Europe's strategic and commercial interests with a mixture of fascination and fear. Its outdated army and military technology prevented Iran from defending itself against foreign encroachment. Despite the rise of British power in the southeast and along the Persian Gulf, Qajar Iran often looked to the British in India as an ally and a counterbalance to Russia.

By 1800 Russia had already annexed Georgia. In two wars with Russia (5805-53 and 1826-28) Iran lost some of its most prosperous provinces in the Caucasus: the present-day republics of Armenia and Azarbaijan, and the site of the present-day oil fields of Baku and neighbouring regions. Iran was left almost bankrupt.

Much of the campaigning was conducted by the Crown Prince, 'Abbas Mirza, who sought the help of Ottoman and western advisers to modernise Iran's army. He introduced other modernising reforms, entrusted a Frenchman to introduce a new school system in Tabriz, and sent students to study in England. In this he was inspired in part by the western reforms of the Ottoman Sultan Selim III, and it is symbolic that he hung a portrait of Selim in one of his palaces, near portraits of Napoleon and the Czar.

The Inner Realm: the Harem

The complement to Fath Ali Shah's elaborate male court was his enormous harem or andarun ('interior'), consisting of more than a thousand women - wives, concubines, maids, dancers, and musicians, as well as the relatives and wives of his uncles, and their attendants.

Images of women were frequent in Fath 'Ali Shah's period; they were not of princesses but of concubines and entertainers, musicians, dancers and acrobats. They might be shown as actively alluring, or passively revealing, but in either case their partial nudity emphasised the theme of male dominion.

Alongside figural painting, there was also a lively genre of still-life painting, which was well developed by the late 18th century. The paintings usually combine a still-life in the foreground - a generous display of food presented on imported porcelain - with a landscape of a garden pavilion in the background. In some instances the paintings were displayed in similar pavilions, where picnic banquets would be held. Like the paintings of enthronement in the audience hall or the paintings of women in the harem, these paintings of picnics and pavilions served to echo and amplify the function of the architecture they decorate.

Transition and Experimentation:
The Reign of Muhammad Shah (1834-48)

Fath 'Ali Shah was succeeded by his grandson Muhammad Shah, the son of the innovative 'Abbas Mirza. His short rule lacked the assertiveness of either his predecessor or his successor, both of whom enjoyed long reigns and paid consistent attention to glorifying the monarchy. Muhammad Shah is often said to have deferred to the mystic tendencies of his unpopular vizier, Haji Mirza Aqasi.

In the hands of the painter-laureate, Muhammad Hasan Afshar (fl.1818-78), a modified version of Fath Ali Shah's court style prevailed. Commissions for monumental paintings of enthronement, hunting and battle declined, whereas small-scale painting in lacquerwork thrived.

Yet Muhammad Shah's reign witnessed innovations that were to bear fruit under his successor: as in Ottoman Turkey, military costume in a European style was adopted as imperial formal wear; a start was made to systematise the granting of military and civil orders along European lines; and the 58405 saw the first Iranian experiments in photography, a medium enthusiastically adopted by the elite. Most important of all, Muhammad Shah sent Abu'l Hasan Ghaffari, known as Sani' al-Mulk (fl.1842-66), to Paris and Rome to study lithography and painting. Abu'l Hasan's return was to decide the course of imperial Qajar portraiture.

The European Imperative:
The Reign of Nasir al-Din Shah (1848-96)

Qajar society experienced rapid change in the second half of the 59th century, including the emergence of dissident religious movements. In an attempt to meet the challenge of increasing European domination, the government implemented reforms, creating new educational institutions such as the Dar al-Funun, a military academy cum polytechnic modelled on Ottoman and European prototypes. This was an era of innovation in art, with the introduction of new media, new themes, new styles in painting and new patrons.

Nasir al-Din Shah (r.1848-1896) initiated change and modernised the capital, Tehran. Nasir al-Din Shah collected European artworks, but he also supported a local school of portraiture which abandoned the style of Fath 'Ali Shah in favour of a European-influenced academic style. The work of these local artists ranged from state oil portraits to watercolours of unprecedented naturalism.

The court elite's growing enthusiasm for portraiture found an outlet in watercolours, photographs and lithographs. Multiple copies of portraits were made possible by the new media, and even by the small-scale of the watercolours. Photography was particularly influential both as a medium in its own right and as an influence on drawing and lithography.

Painting and Popular Piety

In the Muslim world figural painting has been almost entirely confined to the secular realm. Yet in Iran in the second half of the 59th century there was both popular and imperial sponsorship of religious figural painting. A portrait sent from India of the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, the Imam 'Ali, became the model for numerous derivatives, including a bejewelled medallion portrait first worn by the Shah in a dedicated ceremony in 1856.

Monumental narrative paintings and tile panels were set up in shrines and coffee-houses depicting the battle of Karbala (AD 68o), when 'Ali's son Husayn, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, and many of his Shi'ite followers were killed by a rival Muslim army. The tragedy is commemorated annually by the Shi'ites, and even enacted in passion plays (ta'ziaeh). The Qajars encouraged graphic staging and built elaborate auditoria to house these enactments.

'Coffee-house' paintings such as that exhibited here were a graphic counterpart of the ta'ziyeh drama in the vivid and immediate way in which they juxtaposed incidents from the Karbala narrative.

Social Ferment and Artistic Vitality:
The Last Qajars and the Constitutional Period (1896-1925)

In 1896 Nasir al-Din Shah was assassinated. Within ten years Iran had its first constitutional parliament. This period of political and social change saw artists exploring new concepts, both within and beyond the confines of imperial portraiture.

In the double portrait of Muzaffar al-Din Shah the prematurely aged ruler is shown resting one arm on a cane, the other on the supporting arm of his vizier. The artist here conveys the onerous side of sovereignty, and the frail health not just of the monarch but of the monarchy itself. Characterisation and a sombre reflectiveness have taken the place of the impenetrable haughtiness and swagger of Fath 'Ali Shah's state portraits. In place of the typical harem entertainer of Fath 'Ali Shah's reign, we have a life-like portrait of a princess in the portrait of Taj al-Saltaneh. The artist's severe portrayal captures the determined character of a woman whose memoirs vividly describe the iniquities of harem seclusion and argue for female emancipation.

The most important artist of the late Qajar period was Muhammad Ghaffari, known as Kamal al-Mulk ('Perfection of the Kingdom', 5852-5940), who championed a new naturalistic style. The style can be seen in two paintings attributable to Kamal al-Mulk or his circle, a late portrait of Nasir al-Din Shah, and Exorcist and Clients. The latter painting broaches a theme new to Iranian academic painting, the life of common folk.

The portrait of Nasir al-Din Shah betrays the influence of photography, which had a broad effect on styles of painting, drawing and lithography. Lithography made possible the proliferation of newspapers. These were often illustrated with portraits, but they were also the vehicle for satirical cartoons that voiced a new mood of political expression, which burst into revolutionary ferment in the first decade of the 20th century.

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This Exhibition is supported in the UK by The Iran Heritage Foundation