Art Through Time: A Global View
Portraits Art: Portrait of Fath ‘Ali Shah
Fath ‘Ali Shah, the second ruler of the Qajar Dynasty, governed in Iran from 1798 through 1834.
Well-versed in the power of images, Fath ‘Ali used architecture, painting, and decorative arts to demonstrate his authority, wealth, and accomplishments. In fact, the sense of splendor, strength, and stability that these cultural productions projected present a very different picture from the one offered by historical facts. Fath ‘Ali Shah’s reign ultimately saw a series of military defeats, the loss of territories, and the deterioration of palaces and fortresses.
Portraiture comprised an important part of Fath ‘Ali’s artistic patronage. This particular portrait is one of the earliest official images of the ruler, created after he assumed the throne in 1798. Designed to be viewed at a distance from a subservient perspective, it displays features common to other Persian royal portraits of the time—elongated proportions, stylized features, prominently displayed weapons and jewelry, and rich colors and patterns that highlight the opulence of the sitter’s garb and surroundings.
Paintings like this one were sometimes sent to foreign leaders as displays of the dynasty’s prosperity and cultural acuity. As in this image, artists often incorporated European techniques into their work. Frequently, however, such images decorated royal buildings at home, where they were intended to awe and impress visitors. Continuing an ancient Persian tradition, these portraits were venerated in much the same way that religious images were. During court ceremonials and processions, viewers would bow down before the image as if in the presence of Fath ‘Ali himself.
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.”
Diba, Layla S., and Maryam Ekhtiar. Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch 1785–1925. London: I.B. Tauris, 1999.
Floor, Willem M. Wall Paintings And Other Figurative Mural Art in Qajar Iran. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda, 2005.
Hillenbrand, Robert. Persian Painting: From the Mongols to the Qajars.London: I.B. Tauris, 2001.
Raby, Julian. Qajar Portraits: Figure Paintings from Nineteenth Century Persia. London: I.B. Tauris, 2001.