The first major exhibition dedicated to the magnificent art of the Qajar dynasty – which ruled Iran from 1786 to 1925 – will open at the Louvre Museum’s branch in Lens, northern France, on March 28.
“The Rose Empire: Masterpieces of 19th-Century Persian Art” (which ends July 18th) is an unprecedented overview of Qajar art, showcasing more than 400 works from a wide range of private collections and important European, North American and Middle Eastern institutions. It brings together paintings, drawings, jewelry, enamels, rugs, clothing, photographs and ceremonial weapons, many of which are being displayed for the first time.
The exhibition’s title is a reference both to Persian literature and to the seat of the Qajar dynasty. It is named after the Golestân, the collection of poems by the 13th-century poet Saadi that was first translated into French in the 18th century by the orientalist Andre du Ryer under the title “The Rose Empire.” It also alludes to the Kakh-e Golestan, or Golestan Palace, the name given by the Qajar sovereigns to their palace when they first settled in Tehran. The palace is to this day considered a masterpiece of Qajar art and architecture.
“This period is one of the most fascinating in the history of the country,” said Louvre-Lens in its exhibition announcement, “one in which it joined the global community, embracing innovation and modernization while still seeking to maintain its identity. The original and surprising art created during this period was particularly rich and bountiful, driven in part by exceptionally talented court artists.”
“While historians have studied the ancient civilizations that flourished in this area three times the size of France, very few have examined the 18th and 19th centuries, and it is only recently that this period has received the attention it deserves from Islamic art scholars,” the museum added. “As a key transitional period, it remains a major point of reference for contemporary Iranian artists working today.”
The Qajar dynasty was founded in 1786 by Agha Mohammad Khan, who seized power and settled in a small town which became the capital: Tehran. After his assassination, he was succeeded by his nephew Fath Ali Shah, followed by five other rulers. The last sovereign, Ahmad Shah, was deposed in 1925 by Reza Khan, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty.
Artistically speaking, the Qajar courts focused on a wide range of techniques: painting, glasswork, and metalworking, elevating these disciplines “to a new level of excellence,” said Louvre-Lens.
The kings themselves were highly skilled at drawing and calligraphy. During their rule, new techniques emerged, such as photography, which played a key role when it was introduced by Nasseredin Shah in the 1840s.
The Rose Empire exhibition has been staged by French fashion designer Christian Lacroix, who has conceived it as a stroll through the rooms of an opulent Qajar palace. The rooms are inspired by a palatial residence constructed by Fath Ali Shah in Sulaymaniyah, plans for which were drawn up by the French architect Pascal Coste in 1840.
Visitors enter the gallery through a monumental doorway inspired by a triple arcade that appears in a 19th-century Jules Laurens painting. The rooms are grouped into four architectural units, corresponding to the four main sections of the exhibition, and each unit is identified by different shades of a certain color that is characteristic of Qajar art: blue, red, green and yellow. The walls are hung with silk, and walkways are covered with rugs, recalling the sumptuousness of Iranian textiles.
The Louvre-Lens is a regional satellite of the Louvre, situated in Lens, 200 kilometers north of Paris. It was created in an effort to give people living outside Paris access to culture, and displays objects from the collections of the Louvre that are lent on a medium- or long-term basis.
Following the example of Tate Liverpool and the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, the Louvre-Lens was built in an economically challenged area: a historic mining site that closed in the 1960s, bringing hardship to the local community. Since its official opening in December 2012, the museum has exhibited the works of such great masters as Leonardo da Vinci and Rubens.