During the Qajar period in Iran (1779–1924), the painting of wood and pasteboard (papier-mache) surfaces with figural imagery, often in miniature scale, reached an apex. Opaque watercolors and gold were applied on a wood or pasteboard substrate (sometimes itself sheathed in a thin layer of plaster) and then sealed with a transparent coat of varnish, a technique imitating Chinese lacquer. Pastework was generally preferred for small objects, like mirror cases and pen boxes, whereas wood was used for larger furnishings, like doors and tables. The DDFIA collection includes several highlights in the latter category—a table (65.9) and a pair of doors (64.60a–b) – which had presumably once furnished an elite domestic interior. Both can be classified as Safavid revival, for they are rendered in a style associated with late medieval and early modern miniature painting, one that favored scenes of courtly leisure and intricate detail. Considered together, they are excellent evidence of the transfer of the miniature style of painting to larger-scale furnishings during the Qajar period.
The top surface of the table (65.9) features five cartouches depicting hunting, feasting, and general merrymaking. The object is known to have been conceived as a table (khwan) for the Persian inscription around its perimeter reads, “O what a marvelous table, the design of which is so pleasing! How beautiful you are!; Like the countenances of charmers, you are life-giving and spirit-increasing; a design so beautiful it would make Azer and Mani jealous; ravishing, comely, and beautiful…you are.; Thus truly a table and design coupled with laughter; You are a comfort at the banquet of a world-adorning king of kings” (Thackston 2012). In terms of overall format, the doors (64.60a–b) are similar to Safavid royal examples (see an example in the DIA collection) whereby small square panels are located above and below larger rectangular ones, and cartouches further distinguish individual scenes. Their dense and exuberant surface decoration, however, suggests a Qajar attribution. The entire surface is covered in often humorous scenes of princes and attendants hunting, feasting, reclining, and playing polo, all set upon an intricate vegetal background including arabesques terminating in the heads of fanciful creatures. The use of gold is extensive, and the blues, yellows, reds, and greens are vibrant.
A second common technique of wood embellishment during the Qajar period was an inlay process known as khatamkari. In this instance, thin strips of ivory, bone, brass, wood and other media were wrapped together in tight bundles and then sliced from end to end, creating a number of flat units that were then applied to the substrate. The end result was a surface of intricate geometric patterning that covered a variety of objects and furnishings, from small boxes to large doors. A fine example is a pair of doors (64.48.1–2) combining the dense geometry of khatamkari with extensive inlaid bone or ivory inscriptions in nasta‘liq. These inscriptions reveal that the doors were made at the order of the Englishman Sir Gore Ouseley, who served as ambassador to the court of Fath ‘Ali Shah (r. 1797–1834) in the early nineteenth century (Diba 2009; Thackston 2012). In addition, they bear the name of the artist, “The most humble slave, Muhammad Ja‘far Shirazi, inlayer at the capital, Tehran,” and are dated both 1228 of the Hijra and 1818 of the Common Era, the latter in service of the English patron. They also include verses by Hafiz concerning doors: “Come in through the door and brighten our dark abode; Perfume the mind of a gathering of spirituals; After indulging in revelry and dalliance with beauties, of all the things you do, memorize the poetry of Hafiz” (Thackston 2012). A number of works of art—oil paintings, enameled vessels, manuscripts—can be associated with foreign ambassadors to the courts of Fath ‘Ali Shah, and many were notable diplomatic gifts (Komaroff 2011).
Detail of khatamkari door (64.48.1) dated AH 1228 and AD 1813. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2009.)
Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, “Qajar Iran: Wood furnishings,” Collection Highlights, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, November 2012, www.shangrilahawaii.org.
Layla Diba, Scholar-in-Residence report, 2009, internal DDFIA document.
Linda Komaroff, et al., eds. Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2011).
Wheeler Thackston, “Shangri La Highlights in Translation,” Shangri La Working Papers in Islamic Art, no. 1 (February 2012), 1-22.
Maryam Ekhtiar and Marika Sardar, “Nineteenth-Century Iran: Art and the Advent of Modernity,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2011.
Maryam Ekhtiar and Marika Sardar, “Nineteenth-Century Iran: Continuity and Revivalism,”in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–),The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2011.
Marika Sardar, “The Arts of Iran: 1600–1800,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2011.
Sheila Blair and Mortaza Momayyez, “Doors and Door Frames ii. In the Qajar and Pahlavi Periods,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, December 15, 1995.
Jennifer Scarce, “Art in Iran x. Qajar 1. General,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, December 15, 1986.
“Exhibitions: Royal Persian Paintings, The Qajar Epoch, 1785–1925,” Brooklyn Museum of Art.
“Search the Collections: Qajar,” Victoria and Albert Museum.
“Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran,” Harvard University.
Béla Kelényi and Iván Szántó, Artisans at the Crossroads: Persian Arts of the Qajar Period (1796–1925) (Budapest: Ferenc Hopp Museum of Eastern Asiatic Arts, 2010).
Julian Raby, Qajar Portraits (London: Azimuth Editions in association with the Iran Heritage Foundation, 1999).
Layla S. Diba, Maryam Ekhtiar, and B. W. Robinson, Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch, 1785–1925 (Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum of Art in association with I. B. Tauris Publishers, 1998).
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