NASIR AL-DIN SHAH AT A ROYAL BANQUET IN THE GULESTAN PALACE GARDENS
NASIR AL-DIN SHAH AT A ROYAL BANQUET IN THE GULESTAN PALACE GARDENS
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NASIR AL-DIN SHAH AT A ROYAL BANQUET IN THE GULESTAN PALACE GARDENS

ATTRIBUTABLE TO YAHYA GHAFFARI, SANI' AL-MULK II, QAJAR IRAN, TEHRAN, CIRCA 1870-1880

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NASIR AL-DIN SHAH AT A ROYAL BANQUET IN THE GULESTAN PALACE GARDENS
ATTRIBUTABLE TO YAHYA GHAFFARI, SANI' AL-MULK II, QAJAR IRAN, TEHRAN, CIRCA 1870-1880
Oil on canvas
55 ¼ x 43 ¼in. (140.5 x 110cm.)
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Lot Essay

By Dr. Layla S. Diba and Dr. Manoutchehr Eskandari-Qajar

This rare and charming painting by a leading artist of the Nasiri school depicts a lavish royal reception. It is unsigned and undated but clearly bears the hallmarks of the late nineteenth century style of painting practiced in the court workshops of manuscript painting and lithography as well as at the Dar al-Funun Academy of Art. Naseri court painters, including Yahya Ghaffari, Sani’ al-Mulk II (c.1840s- 1895-1906), his cousin Mahmood Ghaffari Kamal al-Mulk (1852-1940) and Mahmood Khan Malek al-Sho’ara (1813-1893), were often assigned to immortalize the architectural achievements and sumptuous court decoration of the Gulestan Palace and its gardens.

There are more than fifty named artists to choose from, yet this painting appears to bear many similarities to the work of Yahya, who was the third son of the painter laureate of the first part of Nasir al-Din Shah’s reign, Abu’l Hasan Ghaffari, Sani’ al-Mulk (d.1866) with whom he trained. He has left behind a number of watercolor portraits in the style of his father, an illustrated manuscript of Rumi and a number of views of the Golestan Palace buildings to which we may add this example (Diba, 2000, pp.83-97).

The striking affinities of this work with Yahya’s painting of the Diamond Hall executed in 1886 (fig.1), the same year as Kamal al-Mulk’s version, include the rendering of the crystal chandeliers and torcheres, the unusually narrow compositional format, and spatial distortions. Yahya’s style was very distinctive, and one can see the influence of photography in its realism yet also of opium addiction in the distortions (Diba, 2000, p.87).

The specific location of the work can be identified as the Narenjestan (Orangerie), built sometime after the Shah’s return from Europe, between 1873 and 1882 during the second of three extensive restorations by Nasir al-Din Shah of his grandfather Fath Ali Shah’s palaces (Scarce, 1983, pp.339-40). A considerable number of these buildings including the Narenjestan no longer exist. Fortunately the Narenjestan is identified in a plan of the royal citadel dated sometime between 1889-1892, published by the Shah’s doctor, J.B. Feuvier (Feuvrier, 160). Views of the exterior are also preserved in two contemporary black and white photographs of the Gulestan Palace Archives (Motaqedi, Sept 20, 2020, e-mail communication).

The source of our identification is the remarkable passage cited below from Dust Ali Khan Mo’ayyeri’s Notices on the Private Life of Nasir al Din Shah. The autobiographical text, covering life at the court from 1886 to 1896, describes the crystal fixtures, trees, pools and fountains, tented roof, orosi windows, citrus trees and tiled alcoves, clearly visible in the painting. Yahya’s work, however, shows charming variations to the interior decoration described in the text, including European-style tables and chairs laden with sweetmeats, teapots and saucers and European paintings of women and landscapes hanging on the walls. The palette of the work, primarily gold and orange, admirably evokes the warm glow of the brilliant lighting of the space lacking in the black and white images. The space is also inhabited by the ruler and his male courtiers who seem to be in attendance on an important guests or guests, possibly a foreign dignitary. This hypothesis is supported by the European-style interior decoration, similar to that of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, where the ruler dined on his first European trip (fig.2). The differences may be due to artistic license or to the recording of an earlier event in the history of the Narenjestan than Dust Ali Khan’s account.

This important painting, combining the skills of a miniature painter with that of an Europeanising easel painter, thus provides the only visual evidence to date of this now lost interior space and of the pleasures and splendours of life at the Nasiri court.

The Large or Greater Narenjestan

…. The building of the Narenjestan was oriented east-west, measuring 238 feet in length and 27 feet in height. The roof of the building was composed of wood rafters that would be covered with large sheets in the winter. It contained forty different types of citrus trees, (bitter oranges, oranges, mandarins, lemons, blood oranges, shaddocks, and such, and they would grow them there all very well). The trees were arranged on either side of a canal flowing on blue ceramic tiles with small fountains at six feet intervals, The trees were planted in circular beds, and measured between 10 to 17 feet in height.

From its eastern part, ten tall steps decorated with multicolored mosaics, connected the Narenjestan with the Brilliant Salon. The crystal pond that had been given to Naser al-Din Shah by Queen Victoria as a gift, was located a little distance away from these stairs and was always overflowing with clear waters. A large circular pond was located in the middle of the Narenjestan, with red and white fish in it, from the stone fountain in the middle of which a large amount of water would spew forth.

The Narenjestan had large south facing orosi windows that would open to the gardens of the Gulestan, and on the andarun side, had large walls with alcoves in which the hunting trophies of the Shah were displayed. Large chandeliers and various lanterns and wall sconces were dispersed throughout the Narenjestan. At the end of it a large fretwork door would open to the Divankhaneh.
Excerpt from: Eskandari-Qajar, Manoutchehr. Trans., ed., Dust Ali Khans Notices on the Private Life of Naser al-Din Shah, Washington D.C., Mage Publishers. Forthcoming.

We wish to extend our sincere thanks to Behnaz-Atighi Moghadam, Kianoosh Motaqedi and Melis Cokuslu for their assistance in the preparation of this text.

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