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Chapter 97: Ghajar School of Graphic Design - Painting

Iranian art from the Ghajar period (1779-1925) has long been neglected and is little understood, it is characterized by large-scale works and the incorporation of various elements in the grammar of graphics. The Ghajar murals and wall decorations, as well as the setting for which they were designed, conveyed a feeling of grandeur and opulence. Iranian art of the 19th century carries the sensation of modernity, while fascinating by the delicacy of its style. Visitors approached these images through a series of ceremonial spaces, courtyards, gardens and walkways. The images were designed to convey a certain transcendental indication; the proportions were elongated, the features highly stylized, the colors saturated, the repeated patterns and the jewelry effects obtained with the gilding, the accumulated gesso and the lacquer. In royal residences, painting functioned as units with a rich range of decorative programs. The great scholar Oleg Grabar criticized the Ghajar art as being both too Iranian and too universal; but these are precisely the source of its exceptional energy and vigor. The large oil paintings of the Fath Ali Shah period have been appreciated by auction houses worldwide for their ability to obtain the highest price, as the English scholar RW Robinson said: "Persia was then a land of paintings, more than ever before or since. ”

In 1998, "Royal Persian Paintings: the Qajar Epoch, 1785–1925" at the Brooklyn Museum of Art presented dazzling and unknown works from this period in the West. A few years later, several exhibitions in France and the United States revived this interest. "The Empire of the Roses: Masterpieces of Persian Art from the 19th Century", a major investigation into painting and the decorative arts, was inaugurated at the Louvre-Lens in 2018. 'The Prince and the Shah: royal portraits of Qajar Iran 'at Freer's | Sackler exhibited paintings, photographs and lacquerware from the museum's permanent collection. Likewise, image technologies: art in 19th century Iran from Harvard art museums offered new visual and intellectual juxtapositions of a range of splendid works from the era in 2017.

The legacy of Ghajar's revival, which occurred after a century of civil wars, is unmistakable. The population  recovered from 3 to 10 million, which has brought about profound changes in the arts, popular culture and religion. Persian classical music is Ghajar music; nineteenth-century court musicians invented the radif and the tar, replacing the guitar-like Arab oudh.  The Ghajar rule is generally understood as being linked to its main ideological and political predecessor, the Safavid reign from 1501 to 1722, but also as a bridge to modernity - and this duality can be seen in the paintings of the time. Like the Tudors in England or the Bourbons in France, the Ghajars have left the deepest imprint on Iranian culture. None of these images showed a king in a real, naturalistic posture. They conveyed a patriotic and heraldic message rather than propaganda for the Shah himself. The real kings in these works were symbolized and allegorized. Using oil paintings on thick canvas, the Ghajar masters participated in a "Salon des refusés" of the Persian tradition, rejecting certain characteristics of traditional art in favor of integration and accommodation with the 'Europe. The most competent artists were chosen for this important task.

In the 19th century, there were at least 12 master painters (Naghashbashi) employed by the Ghajar court. They are Mirza Baba (1810), Abdollah Khan (1812-13), Mirza Ahmad, son of Mirza Hassan (1819), Ismaeel (1836-37), Abollah Khan Me'mar (1839-40), Mehr- Ali Esfahani (1842-1843) Mohammad Ebrahim (1848-1849) Kazeruni Saheb (1850), Abolhassan Ghaffari Sani'olmolk (1860-1861, Mohammad Esmeel (1871), Mirza Ali Akbar Mozzaienoddoleh (1871), Mirza Mohammad Ghaffari Kamalolmolk (1882 -83) Masters like Sani'olmolk and Agha Bozorg Shirazi, whose work is neither traditionally Persian nor entirely European, are rooted in the conviction that art is more perfect than life. The courtiers, khans and poets seen in their paintings seem to be the shadows of a more perfect self, but they overflow with the living likelihood of the European portrait.

Female tumbler (c. 1800–30), unknown artist. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Ladies around a Samovar (c. 1860–75), Isma‘il Jalayir. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Because the wall surfaces of Persian buildings are articulated and modeled with niches, panels and framing the shape and size of a painting is determined by the nature of the space for which it is designed, and for this reason many of the pictures have an arched top allowing them to fit precisely into the arch-shaped niche which frequently occurs.  

Fath-Ali Shah Ghajar

Fath-Ali Shah Ghajar
The long reign of Fath Ali Shah provided Iran with relative political stability and a ruling Qajar elite  that many of them among his more than 100 children. 

Fath-Ali Shah Ghajar

This  life-size portrait , depicting  Fath Ali Shah sitting on a gilded, enamelled and bejewelled throne chair,  is a state portrait intended to awe.  The painting was probably commissioned from the court artist Mihr ‘Ali in around 1800–06, and was presented to the French envoy Amédée Jaubert in July 1806 as a royal gift for Napoleon  and is now at the Louvre.

The  portrait of the Shah arrests the viewer’s attention with his direct gaze, enormous beard, and extravagant royal paraphernalia, displaying the accoutrements of his authority not only in the elaborate throne but also with the massive Taj-i Kiyani crowning his head, the heavily and exquisitely bejewelled armbands, the belt with its long attachment associated with the Qajar tribal costume, and the sword of state.

Mohammad Shah Ghajar

Naserddin Shah Ghajar

Naserddin Shah Ghajar

 King Hormuz dressed as a Qajar prince. Painted in gouache and gilded and lacquered on paper.The British Museum

Further Readings:

  • Babaie Sussan, The paintings that turned Persian art on its head in the 19th century, Apollo, The International Art Magazine . 2 JUNE 2018,
  • Floor Willem, Art (Naqqashi) and Artists (Naqqashan) in Qajar Persia, Muqarnas Vol. 16, 1999,
  • Radjy Amir-Hussein , Masterpieces of hybridity,  A REVIEW of L’EMPIRE DES ROSES Louvre Lens,  TLS,
  • Landau Amy S.,   From Poet To Painter: Allegory And Meraphor In A Seventeenth-Century Persian Painting By Muhammad Zaman, Master of "FARANGĪ-SĀZĪ", Muqarnas Vol. 28 (2011), pp. 101-131
  • Zandieh  M. , A. Fahimi Far , I. Khaleghi, F.  and Mohammadi Haji Abadi ,The identity of the early Qajarid architectural decoration and its sources from the beginning to the end of Fat'h ali shah period (1785-1834), International Journal of Architectural Engineering & Urban Planning, Vol. 23, Nos. 1 & 2, June & December 2013,


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