Isma'il Jalayir (d. ca. 1868-73) was the son Hajj Muhammad Zaman Khan Jalayir of Khorassan, who was a follower of a Sufi Sheikh of the Dhahabiya order called Muhammad Isma'il Dhabihullah, for whom Jalayir was named. After he graduated from the Dar al-Funun, of which he has been dubbed 'the most gifted alumnus' (R.W. Ferrier (ed.), The Arts of Persia, London, 1989, p. 231), he became an instructor there and his highly individualistic style found favour with Nasir al-Din Shah, of whom at least two portraits by Jalayir are known (one of which sold in these Rooms, 29 April 2003, lot 185).
B.W. Robinson writes of Jalayir's style as being 'meticulous, thoroughly Europeanised on the surface, but fundamentally Persian, and tinged with a sort of gentle melancholy' (B.W. Robinson, 'Persian Painting under the Zand and Qajar dynasties' in P. Avery, G. Hambly and C. Melville (eds.), The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. VII, 1991, p. 887). This gentle melancholy to which Robinson refers, communicates itself in part through the serene, trance-like gaze, typical of Jalayir's sitters - visible in the face of our subject. Whilst many of the facts of Jalayir's life remain unsubstantiated, it has been suggested both that he was a user of opium and that he went mad. The spiritual quality of his work may further have been fuelled by his attachment to mysticism. It is also possible that the melancholic quality in part alludes to the transitory nature of life in the rapidly changing society of Iran the late nineteenth century (Layla S. Diba et al, Royal Persian Paintings, New York, 1998, p. 262). The dream-like, otherworldly quality which characterizes Jalayir's painting is further bought out in the surreal contrast both in scale and theme between the prominent life-like form of the sitter in the foreground and the small-scale world of the background where lions are hunted and a lone white leopard perches idly in the rocks.
A number of signatory idiosyncratic motifs frequently manifest themselves in Isma'il Jalayir's works. The heavy fruit-bearing trees here, which Diba refers to as 'Edenic' in the context of another painting is one such motif (Diba et al., op. cit., p. 260). The carpet, too, with the horizontal floral bands is echoed in the painting of 'Ladies around a Samovar' in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Diba et al., op. cit., p. 261). The vase and chair which take European form but which are heavily embellished in the Persian style find parallels in a portrait of Mirza 'Ali Asghar Khan sold in Sotheby's London, 11 October 2006, lot 55.
The tonality of the present work, with the reliance on warm colours including hues of red, green and brown, as well as the skillful rendition of minute details of costume like the fur trim on the sitter's coat or the jeweled buckle that he wears on his belt, are again characteristic of Jalayir's work (Diba et al, op. cit., no. 86, p. 261). Although his chosen subject matter is limited (as discussed below), Jalayir was a master of a number of techniques and is known to have worked in oil, watercolour, calligraphy and lacquer.
The subject matter of Jalayir's paintings demonstrates a new shift towards portraiture. Under the reign of Nasir al-Din Shah (r. 1846-1896), Qajar painting became increasingly Europeanized, possibly due to the increasing domination of European powers. The Dar al-Funun taught Western techniques and the focus very much shifted to portraiture. Ismai'l Jalayir's painting reflects this. His known works are restricted to Royal portraits, portraits of court officials, paintings of famous Sufis, religious fables such as the sacrifice of Isma'il (perhaps drawing from the connection with his own name), and calligraphic paintings. One notable exception is the aforementioned painting of harem ladies around a samovar in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
A very similar portrait to that offered here was sold at Sotheby's (referred to above). It is just possible that the present portrait depicts the same figure, Mirza 'Ali Asghar Khan Amin al-Sultan, Prime Minister under Nasir al-Din Shah and one of Jalayir's main patrons. It is said that Mirza 'Ali Asghar Khan on hearing of Jalayir's tendency to destroy works invited Jalayir to his house and welcomed him to come and go as he pleased. He also asked his servants to watch carefully over Jalayir and quickly remove completed works that he began to examine before he destroyed them should they not meet his high personal standards. He is thus credited with having saved several works. Another portrait of him sold in Sotheby's, 18 October 2001, lot 74. There, as in the current portrait, he is again depicted holding a cane.
In addition to those mentioned above, Ismai'l Jalayir's known works include four portraits of Nur 'Ali Shah, one in the Sadabad Museum of Fine Arts, Tehran, one in the Leipzig Museum and two in private collections (Diba et al., op.cit., p.267, footnote no.37), a painting of the Sacrifice of Isma'il formerly in the collection of P.W. Schulz (Schulz, W., Die persisch-islamische Miniaturmalerei, Leipzig, 1914, vol.1, pl.F), two calligraphic works (Treasures of Islam, exhibition catalogue, Geneva, 1985, no. 177-8, pp. 190-1), two further calligraphic works which sold in these Rooms (26 April 1994, lot 89 and 23 April 1996, lot 102), an album of portraits of the Seven Sufis dated AH 1286/1869 AD in the Gulestan Palace Library in Tehran (Atabey, B., Fehrest-e moraqqa'at-e ketabkhaneh-ye saltanat, Tehran, 1353 sh., cat.no.171, p.386), and a lacquer penbox sold at Sotheby's, London, 12 October 2000, lot 89.