The work of Abu'l Hasan, Sani' al-Mulk 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 Mehr '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 the naqqashbashi (chief painter) of the court of Muhammad Shah in 1842 (Yahya Zoka, Life and Works of Sani' Ol-Molk 1814-1866, Iran, 2003, p. 21) 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.
The expressive power of his portraits - as demonstrated here in the stylised yet strong features of his subjects - led Abu'l Hasan to the art of caricature and he became the illustrator to the court newspaper, Ruznama-i vugayi-i ittifaqiya. Alongside the more traditional depictions of Qajar notables (see lot 193), he showed a capacity for the merciless caricature of their attendants and the religious classes (Julian Raby op. cit., p. 53). This tendency is very much visible here in his depiction of the three housemaids, where his skill in the art of caricature is demonstrated in the shocked yet humorous expressions as they stare both at the lovers and the viewer. These housemaids, and particularly the two to the right with their accentuated expressive features, bear a very strong resemblance to the two shocked characters, who similarly peered in through a window at an amorous couple in a larger oil on canvas which sold in these Rooms, 17 April 2007, lot 284.
Perhaps as a natural result of the new realism that was becoming commonplace in his work and that of his contemporaries, Abu'l Hasan became known for demonstrating a strong psychological presence in his art. This is visible in the contrast between the soft features of the couple, particularly that of the maiden, and the near-charicatures of the housemaids. Indeed, Zoka mentions that Abu'l Hassan's playful and humerous natures is most conspicuous in his group portraits, where the physical and temperamental diversity of his subjects allows the artist a greater degree of depth by sarcastically contrasting their individual particularities (Zoka, op. cit., 2003, p. 70).
The full photograph is available on request.