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Persian Delight
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Gene Hunter
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Spring 1999

Persian Delight
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Admittedly, 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.

The 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.

The 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.

A 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.

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