Bonhams : Fath 'Ali Shah Qajar (reg. 1797-1834) seated against a jewelled bolster on a palace balcony Qajar Persia, from a Court Workshop, dated AH 1251/AD 1835-36
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Lot 62R
Fath 'Ali Shah Qajar (reg. 1797-1834) seated against a jewelled bolster on a palace balcony
Qajar Persia, from a Court Workshop, dated AH 1251/AD 1835-36

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Fath 'Ali Shah Qajar (reg. 1797-1834) seated against a jewelled bolster on a palace balcony
Qajar Persia, from a Court Workshop, dated AH 1251/AD 1835-36
oil on canvas, inscription at upper left in nasta'liq script, framed
167 x 93 cm.


  • Provenance
    Private Swiss collection in London, acquired in the early 1970s.

    Inscriptions: 'al-Sultan Fath'ali Shah Qajar 1251/AD 1835-36'.

    Resplendent, grandiose and monumental, the present work is a rare and superlative example from the inimitable canon of life-size portraits of Fath 'Ali Shah commissioned by the Qajar court. Conspicuous and instantly recognisable, these lavish portraits were an important and imposing projection of the King's imperial might, virility and wealth, both at home and abroad.

    Commissioned almost exclusively either as gifts for foreign monarchs or to adorn palace walls, portraits of Fath 'Ali Shah rank as some of the rarest, most iconic and valued objects in the Islamic art world. The present work, coupled with an equally magnificent still life scene (Lot 63), produced by the Court workshop, most likely in Isfahan, would have occupied pride of place within a prominent royal pavilion.

    Inserted within specially constructed architectural niches (Figure 1), paintings of this kind were used to excite visiting dignitaries with the grandeur of the imperial effigy in the absence of the Shah's physical presence, and according to numerous travel accounts from the period, both the portraits and the Shah's own personage had a lasting effect on their audience.

    Stylistically, the present painting bears all the 'canonical' hallmarks of Court commissioned portraits of the Shah, a formulaic configuration pointing to how tightly managed and stylized the reproduction of the imperial image was during his kingship.

    In keeping with extant examples, the composition includes a pearl-edged rug and jewelled bolster against which the king is seated, a jewelled sword, mace, dagger and bottle make up the rest of the imperial accoutrements. In pose, colour scheme, and perhaps most importantly head-dress, the present work is exemplary of portraits from the later reign of the Shah, where he is depicted in a bejewelled Astrakan (in contrast to the Kianid crown), a feature of the Negaristan Museum Portrait illustrated in B.W Robinson, G. Guadalupi, Qajar: Court Painting in Persia, 1990, p.35 and S.J Falk, Qajar Paintings, 1972 Plate 12 (Figure 2), and the standing portrait in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Museum no. 707-1876).

    In terms of wider composition, the King sits before a drawn crimson curtain against a backdrop of architectural follies and a tree lined landscape, closely following a visual schema favored by the most accomplished court artist of the era, Mihr Ali, seen in his Portrait of Fath Ali Shah Seated at the State Hermitage Museum (Figure 3, Museum No. VR-1108, Illustrated Diba and Ekhtiar,Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch, 1785-1925, 1998, P.184) and his portrait of the ruler which still lies in situ at Golestan Palace. Interestingly, the present portrait and its still life counterpart are flanked by fantastical spandrels attached to the main composition by a seam, depicting hunting scenes and beasts in combat, an intriguing ornamental feature.

    Held in a distinguished private collection since the 1960s, the present work comes to market for the first time, and, testament to its extreme rarity, is the first work of its kind offered at auction in half a decade, and only one of eighteen documented portraits of the king (listed below), seven of which are in major museum collections. The attribution of these portraits consisted of works accredited to named artists such as Mirza Baba, Mihr Ali, Muhammad Sadiq as well as works that came from the Court atelier, with output spread between cities which had an established court presence such as the capital Tehran, as well as Isfahan and Shiraz.

    Most noteworthy is the material composition of the present work; a detailed analysis carried out by Art Analysis and Research reveals a high degree of similarity with pigments used in a 1798 portrait of Fath Ali Shah Seated attributed to Mira Baba, Tehran, whose analysis is presented in Diba, Ekhtiar, op. cit., Appendix (illustrated, Plate No 37), both works include a set of typical 18th Century pigments consisting of calcite grains, lead white, calcium carbonate, orpiment yellow, red lead, vermillion, copper green, Prussian blue and red earth. This similarity points to the shared methodology of portrait output from the Court workshop and perhaps supports a centrally coordinated process of commissioning.

    1. The present portrait
    2. Fath 'Ali Shah attended by a Prince, attributed to Mihr 'Ali, Persia, circa 1820. Sotheby's London 9 April 2014, lot 87.
    3. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a jewelled bolster, attributable to Mihr 'Ali, dated 1816, Sotheby's, 7 October 2009, lot 67.
    4. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a jewelled bolster, attributable to Mirza Baba and the court workshop, circa 1798, Sotheby's 9 April 2008, lot 63.
    5. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, 1810-20, Sotheby's, 11 October 2006, lot 50.
    6. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, circa 1805, Sotheby's, 12 October 2004, lot 21.
    7. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, dated 1798-99: British Library, London, Oriental and India Office collections, (formerly in the commonwealth Relations Office); Raby, Qajar Portraits, 1999, no.110, pp.38-39.
    8. 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.
    9. Fath 'Ali Shah standing, dated 1809-10; State Hermitage Museum, St.Petersburg, VR-1108; Diba and Ekhtiar, op. cit., no.39, p.183.
    10. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, dated 1813-14; State Hermitage Museum, St.Petersburg, VR-1108; Diba and Ekhtiar, op. cit., no.40, pp.184-5.
    11. 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.
    12. 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.
    13. Fath 'Ali Shah seated on a chair, dated 1815; Sotheby's, London, 3 May 2001, lot 69.
    14. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, dated 1810; private collection, sold in these rooms 26 April 1991, lot 186.
    15. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, circa 1810; private collection; Diba and Ekhtiar, op. cit., no.42. pp.187-8.
    16. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, circa 1810; private collection; Robinson, "The Court Painters of Fath Ali Shah", Eretz-Israel 7, 1964, pl.XXXVI.
    17. Fath 'Ali Shah seated, circa 1798; private collection; Sotheby's, New York, 30 May 1986, lot 118, Diba and Ekhtiar, op. cit., no.37, pp.180-1.
    18. Fath Ali Shah seated, Golestan Palace, Tehran

    Fath 'Ali Shah was the second ruler of the Qajar dynasty. Born in 1771, he succeeded his uncle Agha Muhammad in 1797, and reigned until his death in 1834. Fath 'Ali Shah established a centralised bureaucracy and a standing army in Iran, but his authority was compromised by the increasing vulnerability of Iran's borders. Two wars with Russia over the territories of northwestern Iran and the Caucasus, in 1804-13 and 1826-28, resulted in the defeat of the Persian forces and critical territorial losses.

    Fath Ali Shah's imperial ambitions found expression in an active building programme in the Qajar capital of Tehran and the provinces, highly choreographed court ceremony, and in a revival of the arts. He encouraged poetry and the visual arts, even reviving the art of carving monumental royal rock-reliefs after 1200 years.

    During his reign, the European powers were competing for the riches of the East and associated trade, and were keen to foster political and commercial ties in the Middle East and South and East Asia. Furthermore, Britain, France and almost all the other countries of Europe were engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, which lent a military and strategic significance to their potential alliances in the East.

    The competition among the foreign powers for influence at Fath 'Ali Shah's court is illustrated by the case of the envoy Sir Harford Jones's visit to Iran in 1809-11. The Persians, having received no support from the British in repelling Russian attacks in the Caucasus, concluded the treaty of Finkenstein with the French in 1807. The British reacted with alarm and simultaeneously sent two envoys to Persia - Sir Harford Jones from London and General Sir John Malcolm from India. These two, and subsequent envoys, managed to repair most of the damage caused by earlier neglect, and thereafter the competition between France and Britain in Iran was more evenly balanced.

    The attentions that the foreign powers paid to Fath 'Ali Shah were highly flattering to him, as well as being politically necessary, and they fanned the flames of his vanity. They were a welcome contrast to some of the domestic failures of his reign, which saw him lose a good deal of territory to the Russians in the Caucasus, and most of the eastern dominions in Central Asia.

    The complement to Fath Ali Shah's elaborate court was his enormous harem, in an age when many rulers built sizeable harems, he collected one of the largest: 158 wives and concubines, by whom he fathered at least 260 sons. When he died in 1834, he had brought forth more than one thousand descendants, who would go on to form the core of the Persian aristocracy for centuries to come.
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