Much of the public image that the Qajar dynasty (1779–1924) propagated involved techniques new to Persian art. Another important facet of the imperial image, however, relied on time-honored artistic practices and references to the ancient dynasties of the kingdom. Thus the art of Iran in the nineteenth century must be understood as comprising two divergent yet intertwined trends, a push for modernity and a continuation of indigenous traditions.
The Qajars reunified the country that had been torn apart and controlled by competing factions since the fall of the Safavids in 1722. To celebrate this achievement, the earliest Qajar shahs linked themselves with the Achaemenids (559–330 B.C.) and the Sasanians (224–651), the ancient kings who had established the foundations of the Persian nation and its culture. Fath ‘Ali Shah (r. 1797–1834) commissioned rock-cut reliefs where these earlier kings had ordered carved reliefs with their own portraits. His additions were lifesize and located at generally accessible sites such as Taq-i Bustan and Rayy and were thus meant to publicly link the Qajars with their legendary predecessors. Fath ‘Ali Shah commissioned his poet laureate, Fath ‘Ali Khan Saba of Kashan (1765–1822/23) to compose the Shahanshahnama, modeled on Firdausi’s great national epic the Shahnama, which celebrates the ancient and legendary kings of Persia. Several illustrated copies of the poem were made, and at least four were sent to foreign rulers as diplomatic gifts. The production of illustrated manuscripts, however, was limited at this time, as the popularity of oil paintings grew. Among the last manuscripts made in the royal workshops was a copy of the 1001 Nights for Nasir al-Din Shah. The lavish illustrations were by the celebrated court artist Abu’l Hasan Ghaffari, known as Sani’ al-Mulk (ca. 1814–1866).
Court poets of this period also turned to earlier models for inspiration. The bazgasht, or “return” movement of literature, revived the simplicity and elegance of classical poetry of the tenth and eleventh centuries, while rejecting the florid and ornate poetic style (sabk-i hindi) of Safavid poetry. . The nineteenth-century poets Fath ‘Ali Khan Saba, Muhammad Shafi‘, known as Vesal-i Shirazi (1779–1846), and Nashat were among the followers of this movement.
Similarly, calligraphers of this period returned to earlier styles of script. The Vesal family of Shiraz, which includes at least three generations of artists, produced work that is closely affiliated with renowned Safavid calligraphers such as Ahmad Nairizi (active 1682–1739) and Mir ‘Imad al-Hasani (1552–1615). The Vesals are considered masters of revival naskhi and nasta‘liq scripts and experimented with inks in an unprecedented spectrum of colors and unusual formats and compositional arrangements using multidirectional writing with overlapping letters.
In the late nineteenth century, artists demonstrated an interest in the painting and drawing styles of the Safavid period. Muhammad Davari Vesal (1822–1865), for example, looked to both early Safavid and late seventeenth-century models in his eclectic illustrations of the Davari Shahnama (completed 1855), while other artists looked to the drawings and calligraphic compositions of Aqa Riza (born ca. 1560, active until ca. 1621), Mu‘in Musavvir (active ca. 1638–97), and their followers for inspiration, as seen in the two drawings in the Metropolitan Museum collection (1979.518.1; 1979.461).
In the decorative arts, objects in lacquer and enamel enjoyed increasing popularity. The rose and nightingale (gul-u-bulbul) motif, a cherished type of surface ornament since the seventeenth century, remains ubiquitous on all manner of decorative objects of the period. Outside forces also contributed to the continuation of traditions in the decorative arts. The European market for Persian ceramics, for instance, gave impetus to a revival of the luster technique and a renewed interest in traditional methods, as recorded in a treatise by the potter ‘Ali Muhammad Isfahani (active 1870s–1888), On the Manufacture of Modern Kashi Earthenware Tiles and Vases, published in Edinburgh in 1888. Europeans also continued collecting Persian carpets; it was during this period, for example, that the famous carpets from the Ardabil shrine left the country for foreign collections. As a result of this carpet mania, many weavers found business making traditional-style rugs for those who could not purchase the antique ones, though patterns were altered to suit European tastes and carpets resized to fit their houses.