Inscription: In the cartouche in the upper right-hand corner, shabih-e ardeshir mirza navvab-e mustatatb hakim-e arabestan va lurestan ve bakhtiari ibn na'ib al-saltana 'abbas shah ibn fat'ali shah qajar dar senn-e si o haft salegi sana 1267, 'Portrait of Ardeshir Mirza, the gracious Navvab, governor of Arabistan and Luristan and Bakhtiari, son of Na'ib al-Saltana 'Abbas Shah ibn Fath'ali Qajar, aged 37, year 1267'
Prince Ardeshir Mirza Rukn al-Dawla (1805-66) was the ninth son of Crown Prince 'Abbas Mirza and the uncle of Nasir al-Din Shah. He was an able military commander who helped ensure the accessions of both Muhammad Shah and later Nasir al-Din Shah. As reward he was given the governorship of Gilan (in 1834), acted as regent in Tehran during the Herat campaign and was appointed governor of Mazandaran (1835-42), Luristan and Khuzistan (1846). In Khuzistan he crushed local insurrections, aided by his vizier Sulayman Khan Masihi Saham al-Dawla, depicted in our painting to the left of Prince Ardeshir. It is probably this military campaign that is illustrated in our painting. His later posts included governorships in Mazandaran, Tehran, Azerbaijan and Gilan.
As well as being an accomplished political and military figure, Prince Ardeshir was also a poet and a patron of the arts. Abu'l Hassan is known to have completed at least three portraits of him, of which ours is the earliest. The others include two portraits of him seated in lavish interiors, dated AH 1269/1852-52 AD and AH 1271/1854 AD respectively in the Hashem Khosrovani Collection and the Louvre (both published in Layla Diba, Royal Persian Paintings. The Qajar Epoch 1785-1925, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1998, cat.78 and 79, pp.249-50).
In our portrait Ardeshir Mirza and Saham al-Dawla stand on a hilltop surveying their troops. A young officer, possibly Dust Muhammad Khan, the nephew of Ardeshir Mirza, stands in salute. The faces of the figures, particularly those of Ardeshir Mirza and Saham al-Dawla, are particularly finely painted demonstrating Abu'l Hassan's skill for portraiture, something for which he is best known. However this painting also demonstrates his skill at more complex paintings than those with which he is normally associated, with multiple figures and planes.
The work of Abu'l Hassan 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 Hassan 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 nobles, he showed a capacity for the merciless caricature of their attendants and the religious classes (Julian Raby, op. cit., p. 53).
A photograph of our painting is published by Layla Diba in her catalogue Qajar Portraits. The location of the original is there described as unknown, although a photograph of it existed in an album belonging to the Prince himself. This painting therefore presents an important rediscovery of a painting by one of the major masters of Qajar portraiture.