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9 / Portraits

Portrait of Fath ‘Ali Shah
Portrait of Fath ‘Ali Shah
Artist / Origin Mirza Baba (Persian, active 1789–1810)
Region: West Asia
Date 1798–99
Material Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 72 in. (188 cm.), W: 42 in. (107 cm.)
Location Private Collection
Credit Courtesy of Bridgeman Art Library International

expert perspective

Layla DibaFormer Curator of Islamic Art, Brooklyn Museum

Portrait of Fath ‘Ali Shah

» Mirza Baba (Persian, active 1789–1810)

expert perspective

Layla Diba Layla Diba Former Curator of Islamic Art, Brooklyn Museum

The Qajar Dynasty ruled in Persia from 1779 until 1924. Fath ‘Ali Shah was the second ruler of the Qajar Dynasty. He understood very well how he could use painting to impress the viewer with the magnificence of the ruler, his royal aura. In reality, there was not that much prosperity or stability within the realm. Fath ‘Ali Shah tried to wage imperialist sort of campaigns and was really spectacularly unsuccessful. What these paintings did was to present an idealized fantasy of a paradise that perhaps never existed.

The portraits were propaganda. The rulers who commissioned them were very aware of the role they could play. Since the earliest periods of Islam, in the Umayyad period, as soon as a court culture began to flourish, they came into contact with Byzantine and late Classical art; you began to see the use of large-scale wall painting in the palaces of the rulers. Images had certain powers attributed to them and certainly they were intended to elicit emotional and psychological responses. Literally, people bowed down to these paintings. So whether it’s in court ceremonial where the ruler would be present and then the court functionaries and the diplomats were all expected to bow down and essentially to venerate him—even in instances when he wasn’t present, a portrait would be put on a chair or would be carried in a procession and people were literally expected to venerate it in place of the ruler. So they attached a great deal of power to these images.” 

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