ART IN IRAN x.1 Art and Architecture of the Qajar Period


ART IN IRAN, History of

x.1 Art and Architecture of the Qajar Period

The Qajar period is now increasingly recognized as a time of significant change in Persian society. Perhaps the most obvious influence was the impact of Western ideas and technology, which accompanied the diplomats, military and technical advisers, merchants, travelers, and missionaries who flocked into 19th-century Persia. Qajar art, which reflects such influences, has been treated with scant sympathy. Viewed through eyes accustomed to the standards of earlier periods of Persian art, it has been dismissed as garish and unoriginal, instead of being considered on its own terms. Qajar art is in fact firmly rooted in Persian tradition while giving accurate visual expression to the changes in 19th-century Persia, and any study of it must reflect this duality. A balanced assessment is still difficult because the basic information has not yet been systematically classified: there are no comprehensive indexes of surviving monuments and few catalogues, with the possible exception of paintings. The bibliography is equally meager, as the standard works of Persian art stop with the decline of the Safavids in the early 18th century (as for example, Survey of Persian Art). The most lucid and satisfactory account still is that of Robert Murdoch Smith who, during his career as director of the Persian Telegraph Department from 1865 to 1888 systematically built up collections of Persian art for the Victoria and Albert Museum and viewed Qajar art with a sympathetic yet critical eye (R. Murdoch Smith, Persian Art, London, ca. 1876). The priority of Qajar art studies is therefore to catalogue its monuments and artifacts, supplementing firsthand examination and description of this wealth of material with references from secondary sources such as European travel accounts and official reports, Persian chronicles, and archives (for example, see ʿA.-Ḥ. Sapantā, Awqāf-e Eṣfahān, Isfahan, 1346 Š./1968).

Main characteristics. Qajar art is characterized by an exuberant style and flamboyant use of color, which became more emphatic as the 19th century progressed; here Persian art may be compared with developments in 19th-century Europe, where technological mastery made virtuoso forms of decoration possible (for example the ceramic wares of the Minton Factory Stoke; see E. Aslin and P. Atterbury, Minton 1798-1910, catalogue of an exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, August-October, 1976). In the meticulous painting of detail and shading of color, there are also close similarities among such media as painted lacquer (papier maché), enameled gold and copper, and, on a somewhat larger-scale, overglaze painted tilework. In such works and also in certain groups of textiles, the quality of craftsmanship is high. A particularly important feature of Qajar art is the richness of its iconography. Flowers (especially roses and irises), foliage, and fruit function both as central and supporting motifs. There are views of pastoral landscapes and buildings mainly inspired by imported European illustrations. There are also many narratives. Nostalgia for Persia’s past is reflected in scenes of Sasanian rulers, traditional themes of Persian literature, and more recent battles with the Ottoman Turks and Mughals. The contemporary world is seen in the portrayal of Qajar rulers in both official and informal situations and in scenes of everyday life treated with varying degrees of naturalism; here European influence intrudes in such features as the military uniforms worn by Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah and his officers. Perhaps however the most significant and interesting iconography is drawn from the themes of popular folklore, which are found in the oil paintings decorating the walls of coffee houses, paintings on glass, colored lithographs, and tilework panels. Unique to the Qajar period, these images undoubtedly represent the survival of a tradition whose earlier history has been lost. Here the tragic events of Shiʿite martyrology and the exploits of legendary heroes such as Rostam are depicted. (For an account of popular imagery see H. Masse, “L'imagerie populaire de l'Iran,” Arts asiatiques 7, 1960, pp. 163-73). Rostam’s role is a dual one because he appears both as a respected character of the Šāh-nāma and as a more earthy folk hero.

Architecture. Architecture and the various techniques used for its decoration offer possibly the most comprehensive illustration of the qualities of Qajar art. From the surviving monuments it is clear that the Qajars pursued an energetic building program; the majority of buildings date from the two longest reigns, those of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah (1212/1797-1250/1834) and Nāṣer-al dīn Shah (1264/1848-1313/1896). There are also some interesting large-scale buildings found in the reign of the last Qajar, Aḥmad Shah (1327/1909-1342/1924). Surviving examples are found throughout Persia, while the main concentration of buildings is in the capital, Tehran, which was drastically altered by Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah’s construction program begun in 1284/1867 (G. N. Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question I, London, 1892, pp. 305-08). Interesting groups of buildings have also survived in Qazvīn, Isfahan, Shiraz, Kāšān, Kermān, Rašt, Semnān, and Zanjān. Traditional building materials were used: Kiln-fired clay brick for the main sections of construction, stone more sparingly for features such as columns and dados, wood for doors and window frames. Decoration was applied in various techniques, including polychrome tile, carved and molded stucco, painted wood and plaster, inlaid mirrorwork, carved and pierced woodwork.

Religious architecture. This was predominantly urban and concentrated on the mosque and madrasa, which were constructed on the classic Persian plan of an open court with four ayvāns. Far from being a limiting factor, the simplicity of this plant permitted considerable flexibility in that extensions could be built beyond the confines of the court, with freedom to vary the proportions and details of its component units. Three large mosques, the Masjed-e Šāh of Qazvīn (Plate XVIII) built in 1221/1806 (H. Southgate, Narrative of a Tour through Armenia, Kurdistan, Persia and Mesopotamia, New York, 1843, II, pp. 53f.), of Zanjān built in 1243-45/1827-29 (G. Keppel, Personal Narrative of a Journey from India to England, London, 1827, II, p. 158), and of Semnān built in 1244/1828 (X. Hommaire De Hell, Voyage en Turquie et en Perse …, Paris, 1854-56, II, p. 317) have a common feature in a prominent entrance. Because a Persian mosque is surrounded by adjacent buildings and has no exterior in the European sense, the entrance is a towering structure with a vaulted arch lined with moqarnas (stalactites) vaulting and set within a massive rectangular frame. The entrance in turn is linked to the north ayvān of the mosque by a vestibule leading to the open court. The Masjed-e Šāh of Qazvīn has a single story of arches lining its court, while that of the Masjed-e Šāh at Semnān has two stories, the upper set well back from the lower to form an open, terraced walk. The proportions of the four ayvāns are also variable; the Qazvīn and Zanjān mosques have four ayvāns of similar height, but in the Semnān mosque the north and south ayvāns are much taller and more imposing than those on the west and east. They are all constructed on similar principles—lofty recesses with moqarnas decoration in their vaults—and in all cases the south ayvān is the most significant and most lavishly decorated as it leads into the maqṣūra, or sanctuary. The traditional construction of the maqṣūra is seen most clearly at Qazvīn, where it is a square chamber set with a squinch at each corner to effect transition to the dome; the meḥrāb, emphasized by its polychrome tilework decoration, is centered in the south wall.

Later Qajar mosques continue the open-court, four ayvān plan but are more varied in the treatment of it, as can be seen in two mosques from the period of Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah; the Masjed-e Naṣr-al-molk built at Shiraz 1293-1305/1876-88 (Ministry of Culture and Arts, La mosquée Nasirolmolk, Shiraz, n.d.) and the Masjed-e Sepahsālār built at Tehran 1299-1308/1881-90 (Curzon, Persia, pp. 329-30). The Shiraz mosque is unusual in that emphasis is shifted from the sanctuary area. Its open court, reached from an elaborate entrance situated on the northwest corner, is lined with a single row of arches opening on the west to a columned winter prayer hall. There are no ayvāns, and the north side is more elaborate than the south or qebla side. This north side has two stories of open arches framing a spacious central niche that opens into a high chamber flanked by a series of vestibules opening out of one another; at the back of this chamber is a meḥrāb. In contrast, the south side consists of a wide central niche in place of a meḥrāb, and smaller niches on each side. The Masjed-e Sepahsālār was basically constructed as a grand-scale version of the orthodox plan, with a vast two-storied open court and four monumental ayvāns; the south one leads into a large domed sanctuary. Two minarets flank the entrance on the west and four minarets with engaged columnar bases are spaced at intervals along the south facade. Qajar madrasas adapted the open-court plan, usually by constructing rooms behind the arcades lining the court. The mosque and madrasa of Āḡā Bozorg at Kāšān, built in 1248/1832 (H. Narāqī, Āṯār-e tārīḵī-e šahrestānhā-ye Kāšān wa Naṭanz, Tehran, n.d., pp. 254-61) combines both functions in an original manner. It is an elegantly proportioned building with a single-storied open court. In the center of this court a rectangular sunken garden lined with rooms forms a madrasa at basement level.

The remaining Qajar religious buildings, especially the emāmzādas, or shrines, are somewhat less explicit in structure. Of early foundation they have developed into large complexes through centuries of pious donations. The Qajars were diligent patrons, and their work can be seen at the important shrines of Imam Reżā at Mašhad, Fāṭema Maʿṣūma at Qom, ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīm at Ray, Neʿmatallāh Walī at Māhān, and Šāh Čerāḡ and Mīr Moḥammad at Shiraz. Their contributions took various forms: additional courts at Māhān, domed chambers at Qom and Shiraz. Šāh Čerāḡ has a cruciform chamber elaborately decorated with mirrorwork centered over the shah’s tomb and surmounted by a conspicuous tiled dome. These Qajar structures date from 1250/1834 but have been restored many times since. The takīa, or arena for the performance of the taʿzīa passion play associated with the martyrdom of the imams Ḥasan and Ḥosayn, is a special type of religious building for which there is seemingly no evidence before the Qajar period. Few examples have survived because they were either set up temporarily for the occasion or have since been destroyed (J. M. Scarce, “Isfahan in Camera,” Art and Archaeology Research Papers, London, 1976, fig. 9; H. R. D’Allemagne, Du Khorassan au pays des bakhtiaris, Paris, 1911, III, p. 224; J. Feuvrier, Trois ans aà la cour de Perse 1889-1892, 1st ed., Paris, 1899, map). One of the rare surviving examples however is the takīa of Moʿāwen-al-molk at Kermānšāh (Plate XIX), parts of which were built as late as 1347/1929. It is a rambling structure consisting of two open rectangular courts with a central domed cruciform chamber. The tilework decoration is related to the taʿzīa or to Sufi imagery.

Secular architecture. More secular architecture survives from the Qajar than from any earlier period, mainly as royal palaces, large private houses, and city gates. The Qajar court maintained several establishments divided between town and country palaces for winter and summer respectively. In practice the distance of migration was small, as most of the summer residences were located in the Šemīrānāt, the hills around Tehran that now form the northern suburbs of the city. The town residence that also served as an administrative center was the Golestān Palace situated in the south of the present city. It consists of a rambling series of buildings set in walled gardens (Y. Ḏokāʾ, Tārīḵča-ye sāḵtamānhā-ye arg-e salṭanatī-e Tehrān. Rāhnamā-ye Kāḵ-e Golestān, Tehran 1349 Š./1971); as seen today it is essentially the work of Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah, who drastically altered Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah’s buildings and built new ones. Today about a quarter of his structures remain along the north, east, and south sides, grouped according to function, with private and public areas strictly segregated (Feuvrier, Trois ans, map). Originally to the west were extensive ranges of guardhouses and stables. Along the north side were the Taḵt-e Marmar, a deep-columned porch or tālār dating from Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah’s reign, and audience hall. The andarūn (women’s quarters), pulled down in the 1960s, were discreetly concealed behind the audience hall. On the east side Šams-al-ʿemāra functioned as Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah’s private quarters, while buildings on the south side included houses for court employees such as Dr. Feuvrier, the shah’s private physician from 1889 to 1892. Together these buildings show the combination of tradition and novelty. The form of the tālār of the Taḵt-e Marmar can be traced back to Achaemenid times. Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah’s buildings show much innovation resulting from European influence: the audience hall is two-storied with a monumental columned porch and a facade punctuated by deep windows; the Šams-al-ʿemāra, a multi-storied tower with two balconied turrets, shows the same concern with external appearance as 19th-century European architecture.

Few of the summer palaces that once occupied the Šemīrānāt now remain. Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah’s palace, Qaṣr-e Qājār, located 6 km north of Tehran, has now vanished completely. From drawings, plans, and descriptions, it is possible to discuss the monument and compare it with the more eccentric constructions of Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah (P. Coste, Monuments modernes de la Perse, Paris, 1867, pls. LVIII-LXI). Two features are especially striking: that the palace is constructed as a series of terraces, each contained within a brick retaining wall and ascending to the royal apartments of the summit, which takes the form of a two-storied rectangular enclosure with rooms within the walls, looking inward to a garden, and that the proportion of open space far exceeds that of the buildings. Parts only of two of Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah’s palaces, ʿEšratābād and Salṭanatābād (Plate XX; Plate XXI) constructed in the 1880s, have survived (for ʿEšratābād see Curzon, Persia, p. 342; D’Allemagne, Du Khorassan pp. 230-31; for Salṭanatābād see Curzon, p. 341; E. Stack, Six Months in Persia, London, 1882, II, pp. 155-56). Their plan shows that the symmetry of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah’s buildings had been abandoned and that certain European influences were introduced. ʿEšratābād’s main surviving structure is the multistoried turret of Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah’s own apartments comparable to the Šams-al-ʿemāra of the Golestān palace. Grouped around a lake were seventeen single-storied chalets (only six survive today), which served as the andarūn apartments. This same asymmetry is also seen at Salṭanatābād, where the two surviving units are a three-storied rectangular building and a pavilion with a polygonal turret.

Winter and summer residences were also adopted by private citizens sufficiently wealthy to afford them. Enough town houses survive to enable the principles of their architecture to be deduced. They were approached by a discreet entrance that could be centered as in the Nāranjestān at Shiraz built about 1292/1875 (T. O’Donnell, The Narenjistan, Shiraz, n.d.) or could be situated at one side as in the Ḥosaynīya-ye Amīnī of Qazvīn built between 1290/1873 and 1296/1878. Entrances led via vestibules or corridors into open rectangular or square courts with central pools and water channels and rooms constructed in the walls. Each house had two courts, the bīrūnī and andarūnī. The bīrunī was usually the most lavish in scale and decoration, with rooms grouped according to function. There was always a columned tālār along one side leading into a reception area flanked by smaller rooms on each side and opening out of one another. Blocks of rooms on the other sides of the court included both living and kitchen quarters. Such houses also had basements reached from the court by short flights of steps. The summer house, set within a garden concealed from the outside by a brick wall, could therefore present a more inviting external appearance; the Bāḡ-e Eram built at Shiraz about 1292/1875 is a good example of this. As in Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah’s Qaṣr-e Qājār, it is enclosed in a large terraced garden intersected by water channels, which leads up to the two-storied house with a columned tālār and a roof faced by three semicircular pediments.

The remaining examples of secular architecture may be grouped together as public buildings mainly concentrated in urban commercial quarters. Long intersecting domed streets lined with shops on either side were built as new bazaars or were added as extensions to existing ones; for example the 18th-century Bāzār-e Wakīl of Shiraz was extended on the north by the Bāzār-e Now and crossed on the south by the Bāzār-e Mošīr. Bazaar areas were also furnished with ḥammāms, or public baths, whose appearance was usually advertised by a doorway decorated in colorful tilework (for example, the ḥammām of Semnān built in the 1880s has panels of tiles depicting soldiers on each side of the doorway). Ḥammām construction varied in detail but was essentially based on a vaulted central chamber containing a pool leading into a series of secondary rooms. The last examples of secular architecture are the gates that pierced the brick walls encircling Persian cities. Few of the distinctive, gaudily tiled Qajar gates have survived; the best-known examples are the north gate at Semnān built in 1302/1884, the Darb-e Kūšk and the Darvāza-ye Qazvīn in Tehran, and the Darvāza-ye Bāḡ-e Mellī of Tehran built in 1341/1922. The first three are constructed with three entries surrounded by semicircular pediments and separated by minaret-like engaged columns. The Tehran gate of 1922 retains the triple entry but has abandoned the semicircular pediment in favor of a horizontal lintel.

Architectural decoration. Tilework. Both religious and secular architecture owed much of its impact to decoration. One of the most frequently employed techniques was polychrome ceramic tilework, mainly produced in Tehran, Shiraz, and Isfahan (J. M. Scarce, “Function and Decoration in Qajar Tilework,” in Islam in the Balkans. Persian Art and Culture of the 18th and 19th Centuries, Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, 1979, pp. 75-86). Three basic techniques were used: mosaic with geometrical designs worked in square or rectangular pieces of turquoise, white, yellow, and black tile; overglaze-painted cuerda seca with increasingly elaborate patterns painted in a vivid palette of pink, purple, yellow, shades of blue, green, and orange in a meticulous enameled style; and underglaze painting, with a more subtle arrangement of colors modified by the use of black for shading and outlining, used only from about 1880 onward. Tilework was used to emphasize structure. This is particularly noticeable in religious architecture, where bands and panels of tilework decorated the entrance and ayvāns of mosques and madrasas. In Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah’s buildings mosaic and cuerda seca techniques are blended harmoniously; mosaic panels in fine geometric patterns were used to outline verticals, adorn the facets of moqarnas, and also to surface domes. Cuerda seca tiles in graceful compositions, including rose and iris motifs and arabesque foliage, were used to cover arch spandrels and surfaces where bands and panels of clear pattern would be seen to best effect. The religious buildings of Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah’s reign continued in this tradition but employed a much more extensive range of designs. Mosaic tiling continued in geometrical patterns, but cuerda seca was enlivened by the use of such motifs as bouquets and vases of abundant roses and groups of fruit—melon, grapes, pomegranates—all framed in garlands and drapery swags. The style has a decidedly Victorian flavor heightened by the intrusion of such motifs as scenes of European landscapes obviously copied from imported contemporary postcards and magazine illustrations. (Fine examples of such tilework can be seen in the Masjed-e Sepahsālār, Tehran.) Probably the most extraordinary use of tilework in a religious building is seen in the takīa of Moʿāwen-al-molk at Kermānšāh (Plate XIX), decorated with large panels of cuerda seca tiles depicting a sequence of events from the taʿzīa drama and Sufi themes; in the composition and use of color they are treated as paintings. Also included are portrait tiles of local civil and religious dignitaries worked in a hatched and stippled technique in black on white, obviously influenced by lithographs and photographs. (For the importance of photography in Persia see A. M. Piemontese, “The Photographic Album of the Italian Diplomatic Mission to Persia (Summer 1862),” East and West 22, 1972, pp. 261-62).

The tilework of secular buildings was used to panel facades, as in the Golestan Palace (Plate XXII; Plate XXIII; J. M. Scarce “The Tile Decoration of the Gulestan Palace at Tehran: An Introductory Survey,” Akten des VII. Internationalen Kongresses für Iranische Kunst und Archäologie. München 7-10. September 1976, Berlin, 1979, pp. 635-41), to line courtyards and form decorative interior friezes as in some of the late Qajar houses of Shiraz and to adorn city gates. It shared the floral landscape designs of religious buildings but there was more opportunity for narrative scenes, which were worked in cuerda seca technique on a large scale, resulting in poster-like images, with colors applied either in clear washes or in varying depths of intensity. Themes included subjects from popular literature such as Rostam combating the White Dīv boldly splashed across the central pediment of Semnān’s city gate and contemporary subjects ranging from a full-scale portrait of Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah on horseback decorating the facade of the Bāḡ-e Eram, to realistically depicted soldiers in combat in World War I featured on Tehran’s Darvāza-ye Bāḡ-e Mellī. Underglaze painted tiles are best seen in the friezes within the main vestibules of the Golestān Palace and lining the walls of the reception salon at Salṭanatābād. Treated in a hatched and shaded naturalistic style they depict such events as Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah listening to a piano recital or reviewing his troops, groups of European women in fashionable dress, and a later series of Parthian and Sasanian kings inspired by coins and lithograph illustrations (for a discussion of one of the craftsmen who made tiles in this technique see J. M. Scarce, “Ali Mohammad Isfahani—Tilemaker of Tehran,” Oriental Art, N.S. 22, 1976, pp. 278-88).

Stonework. Stone was used comparatively sparingly in architectural decoration as slabs of cream-colored limestone or greenish marble, either supplied in Shiraz from the nearby mountains or brought in from Azerbaijan or Yazd. The slabs were generally made up into dados running along the facades of courts of both religious and secular buildings, ornamented with designs carved in fine shallow relief or openwork. In the Masjed-e Sepahsālār at Tehran these dados were carved with highly wrought floral designs while at Shiraz a more delicate pattern using iris and rose motifs was favored. An interesting local development confined to Shiraz was the copying of figure scenes from the Achaemenid reliefs of Persepolis, notably the processions of servants from the palaces of Darius and Xerxes.

Glasswork. Glass was used in three principal ways. First, stained glass was made up of insets of red, blue, emerald, and yellow set within openwork wood panels used for fanlights and sliding sash windows. Here the Ḥosaynīya-ye Amīnī of Qazvīn is notable because a stained-glass rose window is also painted with twelve zodiac symbols. Second, mirrorwork mosaic, a technique used in late Safavid times to sheath a surface, was fully developed in the Qajar period. It was used to cover the inner surface of an ayvān or tālār as for example in the shrine of Shah ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīm at Ray and the reception area of the Nāranjestān at Shiraz, while the inner chamber of Šāh Čerāg at Shiraz is completely lined with it. Third, in domestic architecture friezes of repeating floral and scroll patterns were inlaid in pieces of colorless red, green, and blue glass against a smooth white stucco ground. Stucco as a form of architectural decoration in its own right has a long history in Persia. In Qajar times, especially during the reign of Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah, it became a highly elaborate means of decorating the ceilings, walls, and fireplaces of domestic architecture and was molded in prominent relief in a repertoire of designs closely resembling those of contemporary tilework; thus the ornate bouquets and bowls of roses and medallions containing fruit and bird motifs are found contained within foliage.

Painting (Plates XXIV; Plate XXV; see also below). The last important means of architectural decorations is painting, which was used mainly in domestic interiors. On ceilings a mosaic of interlocking wooden shapes would be painted with still-life compositions, landscapes, groups of Victorian women, and traditional motifs such as a lion and snake in combat, all framed in rose foliage and ribbon strapwork. Alternatively such designs would be painted on a ceiling of horizontal wooden beams. The parallels with motifs used in tilework and stucco are obvious. When used as wall decoration painting was employed to panels based on flower and bird compositions and also large figure scenes, which might be treated as paintings in their own right rather than as architectural accessories.

Qajar painting stressed different values from those current in earlier periods. The European influence that had been introduced into late Safavid painting continued and was indeed to be given fresh life in the mid-19th century. Large-scale oil painting, which had flourished in the Zand period, was to become the major form of painting at the expense of manuscript illustration. Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah, the first Qajar to patronize the arts, gathered around him an atelier of painters such as Mīrzā Bābā, Mehr-ʿAlī, and ʿAbdallāh Khan. Mīrzā Bābā (ca. 1200-46/1785-1830), his earliest court painter, was commissioned to illustrate a copy of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah’s poems as a gift to George III, but usually concentrated on large-scale oil paintings, including several magnificent portraits of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah (W. Foster, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Paintings etc. in the India Office, 5th ed., London, 1924, no. 116, painting of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah by Mīrzā Bābā dated 1225/1810). These paintings were meticulously executed icons stressing the details of costume and accessory that proclaimed the ruler’s status. Often the figure was posed against a landscape painted in soft colors with elements of perspective. Other large-scale oil paintings were employed as mural decoration. The painter Mehr-ʿAlī, in addition to painting superb portraits of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah (S. J. Falk, Qajar Painting, London, 1972, p. 15), spent much of his time working on large murals; an enormous canvas of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah among his sons is attributed to him. Apart from these royal subjects themes for oil paintings included lively portraits of court women and dancers, hunting scenes, women in European dress, and religious figures. (See Falk, op. cit., for good illustrations of these themes). Oil painting received fresh impetus from the work of Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah’s court painter Abuʾl-Ḥasan Ḡaffārī (d. 1283/1866), who was sent to Italy in 1267/1846 to study painting for three years. His work shows how well he had absorbed a European training, as in his great canvas depicting Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah, his sons, and courtiers, executed for the Neẓāmīya Palace (now in the Tehran Archaeological Museum), each character a subtle and realistic portrait. He could also turn his talents to illustration, and he was responsible for supervising and designing a sumptuous manuscript of the Arabian Nights completed in 1272/1855.

Lacquerwork. Closely related to painting was the art of lacquer that flourished during the Qajar period. In effect, the skills required for miniature painting were concentrated on lacquer objects—mirror cases, pen boxes (qalamdāns; Plate XXVI), book-covers, caskets, and spectacle cases. They were made in papier maché coated with plaster and painted with the required design in water colors; the finished work was then sealed with a coat of transparent lacquer or varnish. Lacquer painting in Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah’s reign reached a very high standard following directly in the tradition of the 18th-century painter Ašraf, whose work survives in exquisitely detailed compositions of roses, irises, and birds. Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah’s artists extended the repertoire to include hunting and court scenes. The close relationship between painting and this applied art is demonstrated by the fact that Mīrzā Bābā worked also in lacquer; the book covers of the manuscripts given to George III were painted by him. As the 19th century progressed lacquer objects were produced using an increasing number of European-influenced motifs, especially young women in Victorian costume and even Christian scenes such as the Holy Family. The most important contribution was made by members of the Najaf family of Isfahan, in particular Moḥammad Esmāʿīl. Court painter to Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah, he specialized in accomplished renderings of historical events as is shown by his masterful casket in the Bern Historical Museum depicting Moḥammad Shah’s siege of Herat; the casket is signed and dated 1283/1865 (B. W. Robinson, “Persian Lacquer in the Bern Historical Museum,” Iran 8, 1970, pp. 47-50).

Enameled work (Plates XXVII; XXVIII). Gold and silver enameled in opaque shades of pink, blue, red, yellow, green, white, and violet were much associated with the Qajar period. Enameled wares were used for luxurious domestic and personal accessories: sets of vases, dishes, boxes, and qalyān (nargileh or water pipe) bases, and were executed in a technique similar to that of lacquer painting, using designs of birds among roses and irises, portraits of women in both European and Persian dresses, and so forth. Although artists worked in both media, one artist distinctive for his enamels was ʿAlī, who painted the back of an oval hand-mirror with a portrait of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah framed in a garland of irises, tulips, and carnations (V. B. Meen and A. D. Tushingham, Crown Jewels of Iran, Toronto, 1968, pp. 70-71).

Apart from this group of enamels, Qajar metalwork consists of a wide range of utensils worked in brass or copper. These included everyday objects such as cooking pots, washing basins, and more elaborately shaped and decorated ewers and candlesticks, lamps, and cosmetic boxes. These were generally worked in brass or copper, their engraved and/or pierced designs were usually based on a continuous series of medallions containing a repertoire of figural motifs ranging from conventionalized royal figures to fantastic creatures of legend and myth. These medallions were reserved against a background of finely worked spiraling and interlacing floral scroll. Elaborately worked armor was not made after the reign of Moḥammad Shah, as the army reforms of his reign introduced European-type uniforms. The roughly worked pieces that continued to be made were in the nature of theatrical costume, insofar as they were worn in the taʿzīa performances.

Ceramics. Qajar ceramic wares are seemingly less interesting than contemporary tilework, presumably for two reasons: quantities of technically superior wares from Europe were imported at the expense of local industry, and the demand for tiles as architectural decoration meant that the best workmanship and design was directed to production. The ceramic wares have not been completely classified or studied nor have their production centers been fully listed. Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, and Nāʾīn appear to have been the main centers. Apart from unglazed earthenware pottery, with their virtually unchanged functions and shapes, Qajar ceramics may tentatively be classified into three main groups. (1) Vessels made in a thin, textured white composite clay and frit paste with a thin alkaline glaze and rather sketchy floral designs in blue, purple, brown, and olive green, probably produced in the early 19th century. Related to them technically is a distinctive group made at Nāʾīn with designs painted in blue and black employing a repertoire of motifs such as sprigs of flowers and Chinese-style willow patterns, possibly influenced by contemporary Staffordshire imports, fish motifs and stepped lozenge bands. Dated examples show that such pieces covered a long time span, from 1809 (A. Lane, Later Islamic Pottery, 2nd ed., London, 1971, pl. 91) up to 1935 when production ceased as Nāʾīn went over to carpet making (M. Centlivres-Demont, Faïences persanes des XIXe et XXe siècles, Bern, 1975). (2) Bowls, jars, and jugs were made in a buff earthenware decorated with overglaze enamels in a palette of bright pink, blue, yellow, green, and black. The crudely executed designs of butterflies, floral borders, and groups of pagodas inhabited by people in Chinese dress, are mainly of interest because they are derived from Chinese “famille-rose” porcelain. A few examples, such as a bowl signed and dated by ʿAlī-Akbar of Shiraz 1262/1846, are painted to a higher standard with scenes of Persian men and women framed in a pastoral landscape (A. Lane, Later Islamic Pottery, pl. 62B). (3) More sophisticated underglaze-painted wares were made in Tehran from about 1880 onward. Using a body fabric of hard white composite clay and frit paste, and designs painted in muted color schemes, they resemble the underglaze-painted tilework that came into fashion at that time. The ware was shaped into elegant if somewhat contrived chalice- and shield-shaped vases and painted with fluent patterns based on floral and leaf scroll and peony blossoms—motifs used as background fillings to tile designs.

Textiles. If ceramic production was somewhat limited, the versatility of Qajar textiles is more than adequate compensation. Textiles were the main items of domestic furnishing—floor coverings, cushions, bed-quilts, tablecloths, costumes, especially the wide trousers later replaced by ballet-like skirts, and jackets or women’s dress. Textiles may be conveniently classified according to technique. The tradition of complex silk weaves continued using floral motifs derived from Safavid sources but modified to cover the textile surface with rich, closely textured design. A speciality of Kermān was a fine wool twill woven with a polychrome design of repeating botta or floral cone motifs. These Kermān twills were woven in a rich color scheme dominated by red, yellow, blue, and green; they were much used for men’s frock coats and long robes. Another textile mass produced in large quantities was block-printed cotten calico or qalamkārī, a specialty of the Isfahan bazaar, where its production still continues. Designs were printed on a cloth using pear wood blocks variously carved with peonies, lotus, carnations, cypress trees, peacocks, tigers, floral stripes and bands. These units were combined to form a wealth of patterns printed in indigo blue, deep red, and yellow. Pieces were frequently stamped with the maker’s name and date so that some idea of the chronological range can be deduced; most of the surviving pieces date from about 1870 through to the early 20th century (for example, a hanging inscribed “work of Akbar-ʿAlī 1295/1878,” private collection). Qalamkārī was much in demand for covers and hangings and was also used for women’s jackets and linings to silk brocade garments.

Great versatility was also shown in the embroidered textiles that ranged from domestic needlework to the work of professional craftsmen. Velvets and silks embroidered with floral motifs in couched gold and silver threads were used for luxurious covers and saddlecloths and were clearly professional works. A lighter form of colored embroidery attributed to Kāšān, Isfahan, Yazd, and Shiraz were the cloths and covers worked with graceful compositions of floral medallions, sprays, and scrolls in silks on a cream background. Kermān produced a type of wool embroidery that resembled the design and color scheme of the famous woven textiles. Here motifs of cypress trees, floral cones, and so forth were worked on a fine twill in small flat stitches to imitate the effect of the Kermān weave. A type of embroidery that seems to be confined to the 19th century is wool work of Rašt, featuring elaborate compositions based on flowers and birds and sometimes figure subjects built up in a combination of patchwork and appliqué with details embroidered in silk (an elaborate example of Rašt patchwork is a hanging in the Bern Historical Museum worked into a portrait of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah). An important category of domestic embroidery was white work, where combinations of small geometrical motifs were worked into a formal repeating pattern using the techniques of needle weaving and cut and drawn threadwork in white silk on finely woven cotton. This type of needlework was used for small covers, cloths, and the face veils that featured a drawn thread lattice at eye level (see J. M. Scarce, “The Development of Women’s Veils in Persia and Afghanistan,” Costume 9, 1975, pp. 4-14). Finally the production of a class of textile—the knotted pile carpet—perhaps considered most characteristic of Persia continued. Fine pieces were produced, especially in the centers of Khorasan and the nomad areas of Kurdistan, but the indigenous tradition had increased to contend with Western influence introduced through the agents of European carpet enterprises and the import of aniline dyes in the mid-19th century.




See also H. E. Wulff, The Traditional Crafts of Persia, Cambridge and London, 1966.

R. Bevis, ed., Bibliotheca Cisorientalia: An Annotated Checklist of Early English Travel Books on the Near and Middle East, Boston, 1973.

Browne, Lit. Hist. Persia IV, pp. 450-57 for a list of Qajar diarists and historians. Curzon, Persia, pp. 16-18, for a list of travelers. On architecture see P. Coste, Monuments modernes de la Perse, Paris, 1867.

L. Lockhart, Persian Cities, London, 1960.

N. Meshkati, A List of the Historical Sites and Ancient Monuments of Iran, Tehran, 1353 S./1974.

R. Stevens, The Land of the Great Sophy, 2nd ed., London, 1971.

D. N. Wilber, Persian Gardens and Garden Pavilions, Vermont and Tokyo, 1962.

On painting see B. W. Robinson, “The Royal Gifts of Path Ali Shah,” Apollo 52, 1950, pp. 66-68.

Idem, “The Court Painters of Fath Ali Shah,” Eretz-Israel 1, 1963, pp. 94-105.

For lacquer see B. W. Robinson, “A Pair of Royal Book-Covers,” Oriental Art, N.S. 10, 1964, pp. 32-36.

Idem, “A Lacquer Mirror-Case of 1854,” Iran 5, 1967, pp. 1-6.

Idem, “Persian Lacquer in the Bern Historical Museum,” Iran 8, 1970, pp. 47-50.

J. de Rochechouart, Souvenirs d'un voyage en Perse, Paris, 1867, chap. 22: “Du cartonnage et de la peinture,” pp. 260-73.

For metalwork see R. Murdoch Smith, Persian Art, London, ca. 1876, pp. 58-74.

B. W. Robinson, “Qajar Painted Enamels,” in Paintings from Islamic Lands, ed. R. Pinder-Wilson, Oxford, 1969, pp. 187-204.

Idem, “A Royal Qajar Enamel,” Iran 10, 1972, pp. 25-30.

For ceramics see M. Centlivres-Demont, Line communaute de potiers en Iran. Le centre de Meybod (Yazd) , Wiesbaden, 1971.

ʿA. M. Isfahani, On the Manufacture of Modern Kashi Earthenware Tiles and Vases, Edinburgh, 1888.

L. J. Oimer, “Rapport sur une mission scientifique en Perse,” Nouvelles archives des missions scientifiques 16, 1, Paris, 1908, pp. 49-61.

On textiles see C. Edwards, The Persian Carpet, London, repr., 1975.

J. Housego, “The 19th-century Persian Carpet Boom,” Oriental Art, N.S. 19/2, 1973, pp. 1-3.

Brief Guide to Persian Embroideries, London, 1950, and Brief Guide to Persian Woven Fabrics, London, 1950, both published by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

(J. M. Scarce)

Originally Published: December 15, 1986

Last Updated: August 15, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. II, Fasc. 6, pp. 627-637