The work of Abu'l Hassan Ghaffari demonstrates a change in the aesthetic of Qajar painting in the mid-19th century (Julian Raby, Qajar Portraits, London, 1999, p.53). The artist began his career as a pupil of Mihr 'Ali, but none of his early works survive and it is therefore unclear as to whether his painting began in a style more typical of Fath 'Ali Shah's reign. He was appointed as naqqash-bashi (chief painter) at the court of Muhammad Shah in 1842 and was sent to study in Italy and Paris, a factor which began to manifest itself in a European-influenced realism in his work that was new to Persian painting (Yahya Zoka, Life and Works of Sani' Ol-Molk 1814-1866, Iran, 2003, p.21).
Painted only two years after his return from Europe in 1850, our portrait demonstrates Ghaffari’s skills in reproducing minutiae, as seen for instance in the smallest details of the Shah’s bejewelled medal and belt, as well as his acuteness as a portrait painter, the skill for which he is perhaps best known (Layla S. Diba (ed.), Royal Persian Painting. The Qajar Epoch 1785-1925, exhibition catalogue, 1998, p. 241). Here he perfectly captures the Shah’s autocratic yet melancholy character. Unlike many of Abu’l Hassan Ghaffari’s portraits, which take place in lavish interiors, often European in style, this painting is unusual in depicting the young Shah in the great outdoors, following the model developed by his predecessor as naqqash-bashi, Muhammad Hassan Afshar, whose best portrait of Muhammad Shah shows the monarch similarly overlooking a military encampment.