Qajar Art – The History
Qajar Art refers to the art and style of the Qajar Dynasty (1781-1925) of Persia (Iran). After a long period of instability and isolation of Safavid Empire (1501-1736), Qajar Era witnessed a boom in artistic expression under the peaceful rule of Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar (1742-97) and his descendants. The revival of cultural and artistic life in Iran began during the Zand Period (1750-79), which laid the foundation of early Qajar Art.
However, Persian contact with Europe was restored during this period, which was also reflected in this genre and subject matter. The inspiration from the European Art resulted in an exuberant Qajar style, done in flamboyant European color tones in the context of Iran’s royal tradition. The style reached a higher level with Persian artists such as Abu Hassan Gaffari (1842-66) joining the European art schools in the late 19th century. With this exposure, Qajar Art, especially the oil painting, came close to the style of European masters, like Reubens (Italy, 1577-1640) and Rembrandt (Dutch, 1606-1669).
Qajar artists were as versatile as their Zand & Safavid predecessors were. Myriad art styles were practiced, such as murals, oil on canvas, manuscripts, illustrations, watercolors, lacquer work, glasswork, stonework, and enamels. Few of the prominent genres of this style were:
o Portraiture – Early Qajar artists depicted portraiture in flattened form, using gold and silver decorative elements on headgear & royal costumes to demarcate royal figures from commoners. The most famous of these artworks are the paintings of the rulers Fateh Ali Shah Qajar (1772-1834) and Mohammed Shah Qajar (1808-84). Under the European influence, portrait artists used the western techniques of modeling figures to add a degree of naturalism to paintings, as seen in the watercolor paintings of Ali, the successor of Prophet Mohammed.
o Floral Themes – Highly stylized formal floral patterns were immensely popular in the Qajar Era. Towards the 19th century, the motifs of flowers, foliage, fruits, and birds took inspiration from imported European illustrations.
o Calligraphy – Qajar artists produced calligraphic designs that functioned as logos or icons in their paintings. This movement gave birth to Nastaliq Style, which later became predominant in Persian Calligraphy.
o Textile Arts – The traditional style of dress in royal portraiture gave way to Western military uniforms under the European influence, making Shahs appear more advanced & western to European monarchs. The portraits of Nassirudin Shah Qajar (1831-96), done in the latter half of Qajar Era depict this change. Portraying Persian women in fashionable European attire was another significant deviation from Islamic principles, due to western proliferation.
Qajar Era was a period of significant change in the Persian society. The most obvious of these changes was the impact of Western ideas and technology on Persia in the 19th century. Qajar Art gave an accurate visual expression to the duality in Persian culture, created due to Western influence on deep-rooted Persian traditions.