Although visual and literary references show that Nadir Shah took an interest in painting, besides the present work, few portraits in oil on canvas of the ruler survive. One Afsharid example, possibly by Muhammad Reza Hindi, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum (I.M.20-1919, published in Robinson, 1982, pp. 36-37). Another, by Mehr 'Ali and dated AH 1232 is published by Diba (Layla S. Diba, Zand and Qajar Paintings, Tehran, 1974. fig. 19). A third is in the India Office Library.
Nadir Shah Afshar (1688-1747), the founder of the Afsharid dynasty, deposed the last members of the Safavid dynasty in 1736, installing himself as ruler. A brilliant military leader, he quickly restored territories lost to Afghan, Ottoman and Russian armies and by 1739 he had conquered the Mughal Empire and imposed a return to Sunnism as he tried to establish an international Islamic empire with himself in the position of leader.
His conquest of Delhi resulted in Indian influences finding their way into Persian painting. It is known that Nadir Shah commissioned portraits of himself from Indian painters, one of which, Diba writes, was presented in 1740 to Richard Benyon, the English governor of Madras, by an Indian official (Diba, 1998, p. 138). In the present work the faces of the courtiers lined up to the left of Nadir Shah are closely reminiscent of those on Mughal miniatures. It is even possible that this work was copied from an Indian original. This blending of Indian and Persian styles is also found in a painting of An Audience at the Court of the Shah which is in the Shalva Amiranashvili State Art Museum of Georgia and is attributed there to the period of Fath 'Ali Shah, although it seems far more probable that it dates from the 18th century. There, in what is a Persian painting, one finds a very Indian treatment of elements such as the Shah's turban and the carpet (Irina Koshoridze, Marina Friedman, Layla S. Diba and B.W. Robinson, Qajar Portraits. Collection of the Shalva Amiranahvili State Art Museum of Georgia, Istanbul, 2004).
The identification inscriptions found above the shoulders of a number of figures on our painting are not legible. This therefore raises another possibility - that the transmission of styles of this painting went the other way and that the present work is fact it is an Indian copy of a Persian original. The most probable explanation is that it is the work of an Indian artist, unfamiliar with the script.
The signature to the left of the figure of Nadir Shah is only in part legible, reinforcing the theory that the painting is the work of an artist with no knowledge of the script. At the time when the painting was framed and the identification plaque applied, the signature was taken as that of 'Ali Ashraf. Indeed, the beginning of the signature appears to read zi ba'd-i Muhammad, after which it becomes undecipherable. This formulation is the way in which 'Ali Ashraf often signs, and it is with those words that he begins his inscription on the binding of the St. Petersburg Album, zi ba'd-i Muhammad 'Ali ashraf-ast, 'After Muhammad, 'Ali is most noble' or 'After Muhammad there is 'Ali Ashraf, (Francesca von Habsburg et.al., The St. Petersburg Muraqqa', Lugano, 1996, p.24). Various dates have been proposed for 'Ali Ashraf's flourit, but at best it seems he was active between 1718-1760. On the basis of the similar nature of their work, their dates, and 'Ali Ashraf's signature which works for both names, it has been suggested that in fact 'Ali Ashraf is one and the same as Muhammad 'Ali Naqqash-bashi, who is known also for figural studies on paper and manuscript illustrations (Nasser D. Khalili, B.W. Robinson and Tim Stanley, Lacquer of the Islamic Lands. Part I, London, 1996, pp.72-73). This painting however presents very few similarities with the known corpus of work signed by 'Ali Ashraf and so it seems unlikely to be the product of his hand.
As with the Victoria and Albert portrait, Nadir Shah as depicted here is shown draped with pearls and clad in an elaborate bejewelled manner very different from his modest appearance associated with the beginning of his reign. This suggests that the painting post-dates Nadir Shah's conquest of India in 1739. Diba notes that the Crown Jewels Collection in Tehran houses numerous strands of pearls possibly similar to these (Layla S. Diba and Maryam Ekhtiar, Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch 1785-1925, New York, 1998, p. 140). Although decorated with jewels associated with India, Nadir Shah here also wears the four-pointed red cap of Afsharid rule in a successful effort to convey his individual concept of royal power.