Ahmad Shah Qajar and His Cabinet
This rare, monumental painting depicts the seventh and last Qajar ruler of Iran, Ahmad Shah (lived 1898–1932; reigned 1909–25), and his first cabinet. Signed by Assad Assad-Allah al-Husayni Naqqash-bashi (painter), it was originally dated to AH 1334/1915 CE in the lower left corner of the canvas. Curiously, the name and the date were subsequently painted over and added to the right corner. Moreover, the year was changed to AH 1328/1910 CE.
Ahmad Shah ascended the Peacock Throne in 1909, at the age of twelve. He succeeded Muhammad Shah, who tried to overthrow the newly established constitutional order and was deposed and exiled. Ahmad Shah’s reign was plagued by rivalry among the British, Germans, and Russians for power and suzerainty in Iran, especially during World War I. In 1925, the Persian parliament dissolved the Qajar dynasty after 150 years of rule and trusted the government to Reza Khan, who founded the Pahlavi dynasty.
This formal painting, the only one of its kind to survive from this period, seems to convey some of the unease and tension of Ahmad Shah’s reign. Dressed in military uniform, Ahmad Shah is in the foreground. His brother, the Crown Prince Muhammad Hassan Mirza (lived 1899–1943), stands behind him and peers over his shoulder. Ten courtiers, eight of whom are wearing military garb, have gathered around the young ruler. Two older figures, shown in robes of honor (khalat) made of prized termeh cloth, bracket the solemn group. These two noblemen are identified in the painting’s upper section as Abd al-Hussayn Mirza Farman-Farma, who served as prime minister from February to July 1915, and Ayn al-Dowla, who succeeded him for a month. It is tempting to propose that the painting represents the short-lived cabinets of Farman-Farma or perhaps his successor.
The tradition of creating large-scale imperial portraits became popular during the reign of Fath-Ali Shah Qajar (reigned 1797–1834). By the second half of the nineteenth century, the shah no longer appeared in traditional garb but in military uniform, as in the case of Ahmad Shah. This custom, which was introduced by Napoleon I, spread across Europe and was also adopted in Turkey and in Iran. Still, Ahmad Shah Qajar and His Cabinet incorporates some long-established Persian symbols: the robes of honor, the astrakhan caps, and a bejeweled aigrette.
One of the most striking characteristics of this monumental work is its indebtedness to the conventions of photography, an art form that became extremely popular in Iran after the third quarter of the nineteenth century. In fact, Ahmad Shah and His Cabinet probably was not executed from life but based on a photograph, which the artist translated into this impressive, almost life-size painting.