Iran (Persia), 1800–1900 A.D.

  • Portrait of a Girl in a Round Pendant
  • Pen Box (Qalamdan) Depicting Shah Ismail in a Battle against the Uzbeks
  • Garden carpet
  • Hanging
  • Swan-Neck Glass Bottle
  • Book cover with Christian themes
  • Naser al-Din Shah
  • Page of calligraphy in ornamental style
  • Lacquer Mirror Case
  • Rose and nightingale (gul-o-bul-bul) drawing


1800 A.D.

1825 A.D.

Qajar dynasty, 1779–1924

1825 A.D.

1850 A.D.

Qajar dynasty, 1779–1924

1850 A.D.

1875 A.D.

Qajar dynasty, 1779–1924

1875 A.D.

1900 A.D.

Qajar dynasty, 1779–1924


The Qajar dynasty brings to an end a long period of political instability, reuniting Iranian territory after the disunity and warfare that characterized much of the eighteenth century. This period witnesses a transition from tribal to centralized rule. Iran becomes entangled in a web of superpower rivalry (between Britain and Russia) and suffers significant losses in the Caucasus. This prompts a program of modernization that results in an unprecedented influx of military, technological, and educational innovations from Europe. Artistic innovations follow. Court poets revive the simplicity and elegance of classical poetry of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar (r. 1797–1834) sends a number of his sons and grandsons to the provinces as governors in an effort to centralize control. He initiates an extensive program of architectural construction in the capital and the provinces and commissions an unprecedented number of lifesize paintings for these palaces and pavilions. Local governors follow suit. Fath ‘Ali Shah also commissions portraits of himself as diplomatic gifts for foreign rulers and dignitaries. Portraits of the ruler and his court are not limited to lifesize but appear in small scale on lacquer and enamel objects as well. Fath ‘Ali Shah revives the art of rock-relief sculpture associated with the ancient Persian dynasties, the Achaemenids (550–335 B.C.) and the Sasanians (221–642) and places them alongside those of his ancient predecessors. During the reign of his successor, Muhammad Shah (r. 1835–48), commissions of lifesize and monumental paintings decline and court patronage shifts to small-scale painting in lacquer.

In the second half of the century, the Babi movement gains momentum and ultimately leads to the birth of a new religion, Bahaism. Mirza Taqi Khan, known as Amir Kabir (prime minister under Nasir al-Din Shah, r. 1848–96), embarks on a state-sponsored program of military, financial, and educational reform, most importantly the establishment of Iran’s first modern institution of higher learning, the Dar al-Funun, in 1851. The years following his execution in 1852 are characterized by relative peace combined with compromises in foreign affairs and sporadic reform initiatives. Artists such as Abu’l Hasan Ghaffari, called Sani’ al-Mulk (ca. 1814–1866), and Muhammad Ghaffari, called Kamal al-Mulk (1852–1940), study in Europe and introduce academic painting in the European style. Sani’ al-Mulk establishes a painting academy at the Dar al-Funun and Kamal al-Mulk opens Iran’s first Academy of Fine Arts in 1911. With the introduction of photography in the 1840s, photographs are increasingly used as models for painting. After a series of trips to Europe, the shah opens the country’s first royal museum and places his collection on display. Iran erects pavilions and displays artifacts and art objects at the world’s fairs in Paris in 1867, 1878, and 1900, and in Vienna in 1873. Many artists, however, continue to work in traditional and revivalist styles.

Toward the end of his reign, Nasir al-Din Shah grants several concessions to European companies, fueling opposition to the regime. An atmosphere of public discontent, social ferment, and repression spurs protest movements and finally the Constitutional Revolution.

Key Events

  • 1797–1834

    During the reign of Fath ‘Ali Shah, Qajar court ceremonials are elaborated and the Gulistan Palace in Tehran is expanded. He emphasizes the ancient Persian traditions of kingship, taking the title “kings of kings” and appropriating Sasanian royal iconography. His son, ‘Abbas Mirza (1789–1833), is appointed crown prince and governor of Azerbaijan.

  • 1800

    Captain John Malcolm of the British East India Company travels to Tehran to cement ties with Fath ‘Ali Shah, whom the British hope will ally with them against the Russians. Further diplomatic embassies arrive in 1809 and 1811.

  • 1805–34

    In a series of wars with Russia, Fath ‘Ali Shah loses most of the Caucasian provinces and is forced to pay reparations, which almost bankrupt the kingdom. In 1813 and 1828, the Treaties of Gulistan and Turkmanchay end the first and second Russo-Persian Wars. In 1833, Crown Prince ‘Abbas Mirza dies, followed by the death of Fath ‘Ali Shah in 1834.

  • 1835–48

    The reign of Muhammad Shah Qajar. In an attempt to regain terrain that had been lost to the Afghans in the eighteenth century, Muhammad Shah seizes Herat briefly in 1838. In 1835, Mirza Saleh Shirazi publishes the first lithographic newspaper in Iran. In 1844, the daguerreotype is introduced in Iran.

  • 1844–52

    The religious leader ‘Ali Muhammad of Shiraz, known as the Bab (1819–1850), leads protests against the Qajars and the ‘ulama who provide support for their oppressive legal system. He proposes a more liberal form of shari’a and denounces corrupt government officials who extort the peasants; the Bab is executed in 1850 and the movement is quieted until the rise of his successor Baha’ullah (1817–1892). In 1863, Baha’ullah proclaims himself the next prophet; the adherents of his new religion are known as Baha’is. After Baha’ullah is exiled to Turkey, his son and grandson continue the movement for greater social justice.

  • 1848–96

    The accession of Nasir al-Din Shah at the age of seventeen. In the early years of the shah’s reign, his able prime minister Amir Kabir lays the foundation for military, administrative, and fiscal reforms that are cut short by his dismissal and execution in 1852. Nasir al-Din Shah patronizes artists and building programs in the European mode. He commissions artists to produce academic portraits and landscapes as well as illustrations for the new state-sponsored newspaper, Ruznama-i Vaqayi Ittifaqia. During his reign, Sani’ al-Mulk’s A Thousand and One Nights manuscript is completed. The British who work in the country become interested in Persian history and culture, and in 1876 there is an exhibit of Persian art at the South Kensington Museum in London.

  • 1851–55

    Patterns on Persian carpets displayed at the Great Exhibition in London influence William Morris of the Arts and Crafts movement. Nasir al-Din Shah’s prime minister Amir Kabir (1807–1852) establishes the Dar al-Funun for training army officers, engineers, doctors, and interpreters. Artists and military musicians are also trained at the school. Calligrapher and painter Muhammad Davari Vesal (1822–1865) completes the last extant illustrated manuscript of the Shahnama (Book of Kings).

  • 1856–57

    In an effort to regain control of Afghanistan, Nasir al-Din Shah wages war on the neighboring province. He briefly takes Herat, but the British force him to withdraw and recognize Afghan independence under the Treaty of Paris. A second war in 1860–61 results in the loss of Merv province.

  • 1872

    Nasir al-Din Shah (1977.683.22) grants Baron Julius Reuter concessions for railroad, mining, and banking companies, but is forced to repeal them after widespread revolts.

  • 1878

    Russians are brought in to train a Cossack regiment in Nasir al-Din Shah’s army; this brigade will play a role in the Constitutional Revolution of the next century. Nasir al-Din Shah opens the country’s first museum and places his collection on display.

  • 1889

    The British-controlled Imperial Bank of Persia opens. It prints the country’s first bank notes.

  • 1891–92

    The ‘ulama and merchants coordinate massive protests when Nasir al-Din Shah awards the British Regie Company the monopoly on collecting, distributing, and exporting Persia’s tobacco. The shah is compelled to cancel the concession in the following year.

  • 1896

    Nasir al-Din Shah is assassinated by a follower of the Islamic activist Jamal al-Din Asadabadi (better known as al-Afghani, 1838–1897), who opposes his pro-Western policies. Muzaffar al-Din Shah (1853–1907) accedes to the throne.


“Iran (Persia), 1800–1900 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)