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the Qajars did not exactly revive the grandeur and dominance of
the Biblical era or the Safavid dynasty of the 16th and 17th centuries.
They had the misfortune to preside over an Iran squeezed more and
more tightly between the encroachments of Western powers - the Russians
and the English - who replaced the Ottomans as the primary threat
to the Persian Empire. If they couldn't return to bygone days of
glory, however, the Qajars maintained power in part by recalling
the magnificence of an earlier Persia.
presence, welcome or otherwise, in Persian consciousness of European
civilizations thus began to increase shortly after the Qajars came
to power. Halfway through Royal Persian Paintings we see that influence
make itself felt as the treatment of princely subjects becomes more
and more "natural" in a Western sense - without, however, losing
the powerful decorative fundaments of Persian artistic traditions.
Qajars' reasons for developing a new kind of painting were as much
propagandistic as aesthetic; indeed, there is strong evidence that
the great early-Qajar ruler Fath' Ali Shah, nephew of the dynasty's
founder, Aqa Muhammad Khan, sought to institute a kind of cultural
Renaissance in his court. It was a way of renewing, and thus arrogating,
the royal splendor of earlier dynasties. It was also a way of providing
coherence to Aqa Muhammed Khan's unification of the far-flung empire.
new appreciation for this artistic achievement, and a resulting
re-evaluation of the supposedly decadent Qajar dynasty and the Iran
it ruled, emerges strongly in Royal Persian Paintings. "We're asking
people to look at a whole new facet not just of Iranian art, but
of Islamic art in general," says Diba. For the casual visitor, barely
aware of the opulent, relatively intimate, artistic traditions that
have most often represented Islamic Persian art in the history books,
the traditionally elaborate patterning and rich coloration of the
pictures on view contrast almost vertiginously with the high degree
of realism evident in their depiction of flora, fauna, landscape,
architecture and especially people.