Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Nineteenth–Century Iran: Art and the Advent of Modernity

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After the turmoil and strife of the eighteenth century in Persia, the rise to power of the Qajar dynasty (1779–1924) signaled a new peace and unity for the country. The Qajar shahs relied heavily on the visual arts to confirm and solidify their new position. One aspect of their public image tied them to the long history of Persia and its ancient dynasties, but another component of their identity was as modernizers and reformers. This involved both changes to the government and the acceptance of new technologies such as the railroad and the telegraph. In the arts, this meant support of the new techniques of lithography and photography, as well as innovative applications of existing forms in Iran such as portraiture and oil painting.


The first Qajar shah, Aqa Muhammad (r. 1785–97), was concerned mainly with consolidating the family's position against the Zands of Shiraz (1750–94). Aqa Muhammad's successor Fath cAli Shah (r. 1797–1834) inherited a more secure position, and devoted ample attention to shaping and defining the Qajar imperial image. He changed aspects of court ceremonial, royal titulature, and imperial regalia in order to glorify the Qajars and distinguish them from their predecessors. Fath cAli Shah guided a large-scale building campaign that included construction of the Negaristan and Gulistan palaces in the capital of Tehran. He also commissioned great numbers of lifesize portraits of himself and his sons, which were placed in the interiors of his palaces and hunting lodges. These paintings formed the backdrop to elaborate court ceremonies. Mirza Baba (active 1780s–1810), Mihr cAli (active ca. 1798–1815), and other court painters created multipainting cycles that presented Fath cAli Shah in an array of guises such as ruler, warrior, and hunter. His portraits were not intended to be realistic depictions but icons of power. They are characterized by dark, rich colors, and figures with idealized features and hieratic poses. Lifesize paintings were also displayed in the private areas of the palaces such as the living quarters and small reception rooms, but here the subject matter tended to be poetic and sensual in tone and included material such as dancing girls and still lifes.


While oil painting had already been introduced to Persia and was used by both the Zand and Afsharid dynasties for state portraits, the early Qajars truly took this medium to new heights. As described above, the paintings formed an integral part of the palace architecture, and one must imagine viewing them after traveling through a carefully mediated series of courtyards, gardens, and gateways. The Qajars also used these images to promote their international image. Official portraits were sent to England, Russia, France, and other countries with whom the Qajars hoped to foster diplomatic ties, and were copied in other media such as lacquer and enamel.


Fath cAli Shah's successors adopted other media as new technologies for reproducing images became available. One of the chief conduits for the dissemination of these new technologies was the Dar al-Funun (Abode of Sciences), Iran's first institution of higher learning based on Western models. The inauguration of the Dar al-Funun in 1851 was a momentous event with great importance for the arts. This academy was envisioned by Nasir al-Din Shah's prime minister Amir Kabir as a training ground for future civil servants and military men. By the second decade of its operation, however, it began to offer instruction in painting, lithography, photography, and music. This instruction was conducted more in the manner of the European fine arts academies, where art was regarded as a scientific and scholarly discipline. Although the Dar al-Funun ultimately altered art education, the age-old master-apprentice system continued to exist.


Photography was introduced into Iran in the early 1840s during the reign of Muhammad Shah but, as a practice and an art, was truly encouraged by his successor, Nasir al-Din Shah (r. 1848–96) (1977.683.22). Under his aegis, the Frenchman Jules Richard (1816–1891) was appointed to the Dar al-Funun faculty in 1851. Richard was the first foreign photographer to serve at the Persian court. The shah also invited missions from Austria, Italy, and France to photograph the country and provide instruction. The Italian Luigi Pesce (active 1848–61), who emigrated in 1848, was the first to photograph such ancient monuments as Persepolis and Taq-i Bustan, while the Tehran-born Armenian Antoin Sevruguin (died 1933) worked for foreign scholars such as Friedrich Sarre who were unable to travel easily through Persia. Pesce and Sevruguin also had their own studios; there, portraits of ordinary citizens were made and prints of the country's famous sites were sold to tourists. Even in this early period, photography was vital to the court for documenting important ceremonies, military campaigns, and historic events. Photographers eventually replaced court painters for such functions. The impact of photography on painting during this period cannot be underestimated. Photography gave a three-dimensional and realistic quality to painting. Many served as models for paintings and paintings that were able to faithfully replicate photographs were highly regarded. As a result, portrait painters paid closer attention to modeling, chiaroscuro, shading, and the psychological nuances in their subjects.


Newspapers with lithographed illustrations and photographs, for instance, could now convey likenesses of the dynasty to an even broader audience. Lithography and other forms of printmaking had been the particular interest of the prince cAbbas Mirza in the 1820s. Then stationed as the governor of Tabriz, he was instrumental in the import of equipment to Iran and the support of students who wanted to learn the new technique. His son, the king Muhammad Shah (r. 1835–48), inherited his father's enthusiasm and sent Abu'l Hasan Ghaffari, titled Sanic al-Mulk (ca. 1814–1866), to Paris and Rome to study painting and printmaking. Under Nasir al-Din Shah, several official newspapers were established; the two most popular were Ruznama-i Vaqayi Ittifaqia, for which Sanic al-Mulk was the chief editor and illustrator, Sharaf and Sharafat, which included numerous portraits of the royal family, court officials, and foreign rulers and diplomats, as well as images of major architectural structures.


Muhammad Ghaffari, titled Kamal al-Mulk (1852–1940), changed the course of painting in Iran. In 1911, he opened the Madrasa-i Sanayi-i Mustazrafa, Iran's first Academy of Fine Arts. A graduate of the Dar al-Funun, he studied in Paris, Florence, and Rome, where he spent his time copying works of the old masters. Under his influence, Qajar painting was transformed to include a new degree of naturalism and a greater interest in genre scenes, slices of everyday life that he captured alongside the official portraits he was commissioned to paint.


The end of the nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of large-scale oil paintings of religious subjects. Many of these portable canvases were visual analogues to the Shici passion plays commemorating the lives of the Shici imams, particularly Husayn's martyrdom at Karbala. These monumental paintings represented a break with the past, since for the first time religious paintings were displayed publicly and intended for the masses. Many were produced and displayed in coffeehouses and thus referred to as qahvakhana, or coffeehouse paintings.

Maryam Ekhtiar
Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Marika Sardar
Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

Portrait of Fath cAli Shah, 1813
Mihr cAli (Iranian, active ca. 1798–1815)
Oil on canvas; 125 x 246 cm
Sa'dabad Museum, Tehran
Court photographer in action
Unknown Artist
Salt print
From: Iraj Afshar, Ganjinah-'i caksha-yi Iran (Tehran, 1992)
Fortune-Teller, 1309/1892
Kamal al-Mulk (Iranian, 1852–1940)
Oil on canvas; 53 x 76 cm
Sa'dabad Museum, Tehran
S. G. W. Benjamin, First American Ambassador to Iran, 1885
Lithograph reproduced in Sharaf (April 1885), p. 3
Near East Collections, Princeton University Library
Image courtesy of Princeton Library Near East Division
Portrait of Nasir al-Din Shah, 1855
Unknown Artist
Opaque and transparent watercolor on paper; 20.8 x 19.2 cm
Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY
(MAO 778)
Musée du Louvre, Paris