This resplendent royal portrait of Fath ‘Ali Shah, the pre-eminent ruler of the Qajar dynasty, is an exemplary model of the extensive canon of life-size portraits commissioned by the monarch. Such paintings immortalised his rule of Persia, both internally to the Iranian populace and externally to overseas governments and royalty.
Of the small number of large-scale portraits of this monarch, only four are present in Western museum collections: one is in the British Library, London (Oriental and India Office Collections), one in the Musée Nationale de Versailles, Paris (on loan at the Louvre), and two are in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Additionally, a standing portrait of Fath `Ali Shah signed by Mihr `Ali was formerly in the Art and History Trust Collection, and is currently on loan to the Freer/Sackler Gallery, Washington. A total of sixteen monumental portraits of Fath `Ali Shah are recorded and published, as follows:
1. The present portrait: Fath ‘Ali Shah attended by a Prince, attributed to Mihr ‘Ali, Persia, circa 1820. Sotheby’s London 9 April 2014, lot 87.
2. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a jewelled bolster, attributable to Mihr 'Ali, dated 1816, sold in these rooms 7 October 2009, lot 67.
3. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a jewelled bolster, attributable to Mirza Baba and the court workshop, circa 1798, sold in these rooms 9 April 2008, lot 63.
4. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, 1810-20, sold in these rooms 11 October 2006, lot 50.
5. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, circa 1805, sold in these rooms 12 October 2004, lot 21.
6. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, dated 1798-99: British Library, London, Oriental and India Office collections, inv.no.F116 (formerly in the commonwealth Relations Office); Raby, 1999, no.110, pp.38-39.
7. Fath 'Ali Shah seated on a chair, circa 1800-06; Musée du Louvre, Paris, MV638 (on loan from the Musée National de Versailles); Diba and Ekhtiar, 1998, no.38, pp.181-2.
8. Fath 'Ali Shah standing, dated 1809-10; State Hermitage Museum, St.Petersburg, VR-1108; Diba and Ekhtiar, 1998, no.39, p.183.
9. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, dated 1813-14; State Hermitage Museum, St.Petersburg, VR-1108; Diba and Ekhtiar, 1998, no.40, pp.184-5.
10. Fath 'Ali Shah standing, dated 1813; Sadabad Museum of Fine Arts, Tehran (formerly in the Negaristan Museum); Falk 1972, no.15, Keikavusi, no.8, 8a.
11. Fath 'Ali Shah standing in armour, dated 1814-15; formerly Art and History Trust Collection, Diba and Ekhtiar, 1998, no.41. pp.185-186, Soudavar, 1992, no.158, pp.388-9.
12. Fath 'Ali Shah seated on a chair, dated 1815; sold in these rooms London, 3 May 2001, lot 69.
13. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, dated 1810; private collection, sold in these rooms 26 April 1991, lot 186.
14. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, circa 1810; private collection; Diba and Ekhtiar, 1998, no.42. pp.187-8.
15. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, circa 1810; private collection; Robinson, 1964, pl.XXXVI.
16. Fath 'Ali Shah seated, circa 1798; private collection; Sotheby's, New York, 30 May 1986, lot 118, Diba and Ekhtiar, 1998, no.37, pp.180-1.
The king is depicted in a palace chamber kneeling at an angle on a jewelled rug, his back supported by a bolster completely encrusted with pearls and precious stones. He is wearing a vivid red ceremonial coat with full length embellished sleeves, jewelled epaulettes, armbands, cuffs and hem lining; on his head he wears the four-pointed jewelled Kayanid
crown set with pearls, emeralds, rubies, diamonds and precious stones. A jewelled scabbard, a symbol of state, is suspended from his thickly-ornamented belt. Unique to this portrait, he is depicted holding the mouthpiece of a qaliyan
in his right hand, with the elaborate glass vessel before him on a low ornamented stand. A decorative cartouche often featured in royal portraits is present, although the inscription has been replaced with a delicate floral motif. Paintings of this shape were common to the palatial residences of the Qajar period, as such works were cut to fit a niche of an interior wall, hence the arched canvas.
An intriguing point of discussion is the identity of the youth standing to the right of the king. Fath ‘Ali Shah is rarely depicted with his descendants in such large scale, yet is shown here with a single handsome youth dressed in a dark regimental robe featuring a high European-style collar. He wears a cravat of fine lawn fabric also tied in the European manner and upon his head sits a pointed black karakul cap. At his waist is a patterned red sash from which hangs a jewelled qamar
. The figure almost certainly portrays the young Muhammad Mirza, son of Crown Prince ‘Abbas Mirza. Muhammad Mirza travelled to Europe several times with his father, who adopted and employed military tactics observed on overseas visits. In addition to this, he assumed a similar form of dress and was often portrayed wearing cravats and military uniforms cut in the European style. The hypothesis of this attribution is supported by another courtly portrayal also attributed to Mihr ‘Ali, sold in these rooms 13 October 1999, lot 17. The portrait depicting a youth identified as Muhammad Mirza holds a remarkable resemblance in both costume and demeanour to the youth depicted in this painting. One can assume that Mihr ‘Ali should have been chosen to portray the young Prince Muhammad Mirza, who was to succeed Fath ‘Ali Shah in 1834 as supreme leader.
The painting shares many close affinities with the style of Mihr ‘Ali, to whom the majority of imperial portraits have been assigned. Preferred painter of the Qajar court, Mihr 'Ali developed a distinct style and was the favoured artist for life-size royal portraits. His works are poignant due to their unique illustrative qualities, focused on expressing emotion and personality. The naturalistic depiction of the fingers and signature hand gesture is repeatedly featured in his royal portraits. The prominent arched dark eyebrows, full beard, aquiline nose, and heavily lidded kohl-rimmed almond-shaped eyes are portrayed with a directly focused and expressive gaze, exemplary of his canon of courtly portraits. However, the tall white porcelain vase with floral pattern, the paisley patterned belt and the striped border of Muhammad Mirza’s costume are typically found in the works of Muhammad Hasan. Both teacher and student were key contributors to the oeuvre of life-size portraits characteristic of the art of the Qajar court. Illustrations of members of the royal court were considerably idealised and romanticised. This is particularly evident in the extensive illustrations of Fath ‘Ali Shah, which were glamourised to convey a sense of grandeur and imperial domination. Never ageing nor effected by the tests of his rule, Fath ‘Ali Shah’s repeated imagery was formulaically reproduced over the course of twenty years without fault. Thus he developed a sustained image, leading him to be successfully recognised as the archetypal oriental leader - his image is still widely recognised in Iranian culture to this day.
The long and strong reign of the Qajar dynasty (1785-1925) was known as one of general peace and cultural advancement. Due to the efforts of Agha Muhammad Khan (r.1782-97), the founder of the Qajar dynasty who successfully united the dispersed clans and tribes in Iran, Fath ‘Ali Shah enjoyed a period of relative peace during which Persian arts and culture were given a platform to develop and flourish. Fath ‘Ali Shah was a great patron of various artistic practices; he keenly pursued and supported the artistic literati of the Persian court, encouraging the production of multiple architectural structures and commissioning paintings for their interior. His ambitious nature led him to easily adopt and exploit art and portraiture as a political tool, leaving an extensive artistic legacy behind. Fath ‘Ali Shah utilised figural depictions for propaganda purposes, and consequently life-size portraits became an integral emblem of monarchy for the Qajars.
The Shah’s reign projected Iran into a period of opulence and pomp, which celebrated the formalities and rituals of courtly splendour. His ascension to the throne sparked a luxuriously revivalist phase specifically recalling ancient traditions. These beautifully executed portraits were often sent abroad with returning foreign envoys as courtly gifts demonstrating Fath Ali Shah’s power and supremacy to his rival rulers. It is interesting to observe the great distances which these gifts travelled, since art from the Qajar court has been retrieved in Calcutta, London, Paris, and St. Petersburg. His lavish ceremonial costume, extravagant crown and various jewelled ornaments purposefully illustrated the wealth of Fath ‘Ali Shah’s empire. His long beard and numerous progeny were parades of his virility, a refreshing contrast to his unattractive eunuch uncle. Due to his enthusiasm for self-promotion and portrayal, the court of Fath ‘Ali Shah nurtured the talents of some truly gifted artists.
A significant symbol of wealth and power in this portrait is the plethora of diamonds that surrounds Fath ‘Ali Shah’s attire, particularly the pair of large diamonds incorporated into his bazubands (the rectangular diamond Darya-I Nur (Sea of Light) and ovoid Taj-I Mah (Crown of the Sea)). These diamonds were a result of Nadir Shah's sacking of Delhi in 1793, and were then worn by successive Qajar rulers including Fath 'Ali Shah, Muhammad Shah and finally Nasir al-Din Shah (who then had the Darya-I Nur mounted, as it remains today, see V.B. Meen & A.D. Tushingham, The Crown Jewels of Iran, Toronto, 1969, pp.53 & 68). The diamond encrusted sword propped on his lap is also believed to have belonged to Nadir Shah, and later enamelled by order of Fath 'Ali Shah (illustrated in Ibid, p.60-61).