Lot 94
  • 94


500,000 - 800,000 GBP
959,650 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Oil on Canvas
  • 146 by 94cm.
Oil and metal leaf on canvas, framed


Diba and Ekhtiar, Royal Persian Painting, the Qajar Epoch, 1795-1925, Brooklyn, 1998, p.158-59, no.28.

Catalogue Note

This bold and voluptuous image of a lady is one of the most iconic portraits of the early Qajar period, painted by the leading artist of the day, probably for the royal court of Fath Ali Shah Qajar.

It is painted very much in the Zandi style of the late eighteenth century, the style in which Mirza Baba had been trained and which persisted in early Qajar art well into the nineteenth century. The figural type, the sleepy, languid eyes, the costume and particularly the broad, heavily patterned trousers, which are depicted in such a way as consciously to display their textile, are all features of Zandi style and are characteristic of Mirza Baba's work.

Mirza Baba was one of the most talented and influential of early Qajar artists. Described by B.W. Robinson as a "great painter" (Ferrier 1989, p.225), he was already working for the Qajar family at Astarabad before they came to power, and he continued in the service of Fath Ali Shah as emperor. Falk suggests that he was in the employ of the Zand court before transferring to the Qajars (Falk 1972, p.25). Active until 1810, he was a versatile artist who produced small scale illustrations for manuscripts (such as a copy of Fath Ali Shah's poems commissioned as a gift to the Prince Regent in 1812 and now in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen at the Royal Library, Windsor Castle) and lacquer as well as large-scale oil paintings, for which he is best known. His works in oil depict a variety of subjects, most commonly royal portraits, languid portraits of dancing girls and musicians, young romantics and still-life paintings. He is mentioned several times, described as the painter laureate or naqqash bashi, by the English writer Sir William Ouseley, who was in Tehran in 1809 in the entourage of his brother Sir Gore Ouseley, one of the English envoys sent to the court of Fath Ali Shah. In 1802 Mira Baba was commissioned by Fath Ali Shah to design the marble throne of the capital's audience hall in Tehran, and Layla Diba has suggested that this painting may well have been executed to decorate one of the royal palaces on the citadel (Diba and Ekhtiar 1998, p.159). This possibility is supported by the fact that only two years earlier, in 1213 AH/1799 AD, Mirza Baba had painted the well-known monumental royal portrait of Fath Ali Shah Qajar now in the Oriental and India Office Collections at the British Library, London (see London 1998, no.110), and since he was one of the senior court artists it is highly unlikely that he would have executed works for any other patron in the short intervening time.

It is probable that Mirza Baba was a pupil of Muhammad Sadiq. Diba suggests this in her catalogue description of the present work in the catalogue of the 1998 exhibition of Qajar painting (Diba and Ekhtiar 1998, no.28). Certainly their style is very close and their biographies overlap both in the Zand and early Qajar contexts. But a more direct proof of this master-student relationship is evident in the remarkable compositional similarity that exists between the present work and one of Mirza Baba's most famous female portraits (see fig.1). The painting in question is published in the introductory chapter of the seminal catalogue of the Amery Collection, written by Toby Falk in 1972 (fig.9, p.28), and again in Diba and Ekhtiar 1998, fig.VIII, p.157. It shows a female figure seated with one leg crossed under the other with the henna'd underside of her right foot showing; she is wearing a wide boteh-patterned trouser and a open-fronted striped jacket of Kirman-type cloth, underneath which is diaphanous shirt, open as far down as the midriff and pinned at the neck with a pearl-bordered broach. She is playing the mandolin, with her right hand strumming the strings and her left hand holding the neck of the instrument, her left arm resting on her left knee for support. To the lower left are a bowl of fruit, a bottle, cup and dish. She is seated upon a rug or carpet with a meandering floral border, and behind her is a balustrade of geometric design. It is signed by Muhammad Sadiq (using his epithet Ya Sadiq al-Wa'd) and dated 1183 AH/1769-70 AD.

An examination of the present portrait shows that the pose of the female figure is absolutely identical in both portraits, with the legs crossed in the same manner, the underside of the foot exposed, and the hands and arms are positioned exactly as if the figure were playing a mandolin, except here Mirza Baba has substituted for the mandolin an apple/pomegranate in the right hand and a glass of wine in the left. Even the detail of the left arm resting on the left knee, even the way the finger of each hand are depicted echoes that of Muhammad Sadiq's original If you placed a mandolin in the hands of Mirza Baba's figure she would be able to play it in the same pose as Muhammad Sadiq's). The clothing and surroundings are also almost identical. In the present portrait the figure is wearing a wide, patterned trouser, a striped jacket and an open-fronted diaphanous shirt pinned at the neck with a pearl-bordered broach. Even the exact length of the front opening of the shirt is the same. To the lower left is a wine bottle of identical design, she is seated on a rug with a meandering floral border of identical design, and the geometric balustrade is also identical.

This compositional repetition is an interesting and important art historical point. While the general and conscious repetition of a compositional feature or basic outline is common and acknowledged throughout the history of Persian painting (witness the numerous compositional tropes evident in Persian book-painting from the fifteenth century onwards), it was even more often and more directly the case where a pupil was working from the oeuvre of his master. However, the extreme similarity evident here is unusual, and not only confirms that Mirza Baba was Muhammad Sadiq's pupil, but that thirty years later he had access to his master's painting, or to other identical compositions. Could the present portrait have been painted for the same patron? A further interesting point, and one which has a bearing on the subject of Qajar taste for Zandi style, is that the two portraits must surely have been executed for different royal patrons. In 1769-70 Muhammad Sadiq was working for the Zand court at Shiraz, whereas in 1800-1 Mirza Baba was working for the Qajar court at Tehran. Could Mirza Baba have intentionally echoed his master's composition not only in the context of master-pupil compositional repetition, but also because his patron Fath 'Ali Shah had asked for a portrait that was close to the style and composition of the earlier work, and perhaps even a whole decorative cycle in one of  his palaces that echoed a Zandi example in Shiraz?

The identity of the female figure in the present work is unknown and unidentified, as is the case with all such portraits in the early Qajar period. She is likely to have represented a royal courtesan or entertainer, shown in an idealized way rather than as an actual portrait of a real person. Afsaneh Najmabadi has written an interesting essay on the subject of female portraiture in Qajar Iran, which throws light on the possible role and context of portraits such as this one (see Najmabadi 1998).