This portrait is a rare type of oil painting produced at the end of the 17th century in Isfahan. Eleven other examples are known (see below), five of which have appeared at auction in recent years. Five examples were exhibited at Colnaghis in 1976, and returned to Iran, where they may be seen in the Sadabad Museum of Fine Arts, Tehran. Some of these paintings are of non-Iranian subjects; it is generally accepted that the subjects are wealthy Armenians or Georgians, probably commissioned by the community living in New Julfa outside of Isfahan.
The present example is unusual in being a portrait of a young Iranian man. He is wearing a pink coat with frogging and gold trim, which was in fashion from around 1650 to the end of the century. Shah 'Abbas II is seen wearing a similar coat in a fresco painting in the Chihil Sutun palace in Isfahan, painted some time after 1647 (Sims, E.: Peerless images, Persian painting and its sources, Yale, 2002, no.192, p.192). On his head he wears a black fur hat also trimmed with gold brocade. This type of hat has been associated with Shah 'Abbas I who is often to be seen wearing a hat of this shape in various images of him, for example another fresco painting in the Chihil Sutun (Sims, op.cit, no.36, p.120). Hats of this type continued to be fashionable up to the early 18th century. They are worn by gentlemen appearing on a penbox painted by Hajji Muhammad (Adle, C. Ecriture de l'Union, Reflets du temps des troubles, oeuvre picturale de Haji Mohammad, Paris, 1980, fig.4, p.16).
As Isfahan developed in the 17th century from Shah 'Abbas I onwards, new impetuses pushed taste in different directions. The influx of large numbers of foreigners; European traders bringing in new products and Armenians in New Julfa generating wealth through their trading activities, had created a new market for goods. Persian painting was subject to these new influences, and the enormous building programme undertaken by Shah 'Abbas and his successors created a need for new methods of decorating these new spaces. A taste for large-scale paintings developed, unprecedented in the history of Iranian painting. These paintings can still be seen in the Chihil Sutun, Hasht Bihisht and 'Ali Qapu, but were also present in other buildings that have not survived, such as the Ayina Khana. Initially, the style developed straight out of the canon of Persian painting, such as the gates of the bazaar which are decorated with scenes reminiscent of a 16th century manuscript painting, or were transcribed from the work of such artists as Reza 'Abbasi, (Sims, op.cit, nos.146-7, pp.232-3).
The artists of the period, Shaykh 'Abbasi, 'Ali Quli Jabbadar, Hajji Muhammad and Muhammad Zaman, for example, continued to work on paintings destined for albums or on lacquer, but in their hands the Europeanizing style reached considerable refinement. The present painting is influenced by their work; the treatment of the view through the open window of a landscape echoes the careful observation of nature to be seen in the work of all three artists.
Several features mark out this painting, and some of the others mentioned below. It is a single figure oil painting of a wealthy individual displaying his status through his clothing; the directness of the gaze suggest that this is a portrait rather than an idealized image of a handsome youth. These features point forwards to the Afsharid, Zand and Qajar periods, not backwards to the Safavid era. These images are the first appearances of a radical break with the past and the emergence of a new school of painting in Iran.
Other single figure oil paintings:
A lady in Persian dress in an interior; a gentleman in Persian dress in an interior; a lady in Persian dress holding a wine flask in a landscape; a lady in Persian dress holding a rhyton in a landscape; a footman in a landscape, all exhibited at Colnaghis, now in Sadabad Museum of Fine Arts, Tehran. (Colnaghi, P and D.: Persian and Mughal Art, exhibition catalogue, 1976).
A gentleman in an interior holding a bow and arrow (Adle, C.: Archéologie et arts du monde Iranien, Paris, 1996)
Portrait of a European gentleman in Persian dress, sold Sotheby's, 15 October 1997, lot 35
A lady in Persian dress and a gentleman in Persian dress, sold in these rooms, 11 July 1974, lot 42 and 43
An Armenian lady, sold Sotheby's 15 October 1998, lot 69
A lady in a turban, sold in these rooms, 14 October 1997, lot 156