Janet O'Brien - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Janet O’Brien

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Janet O’Brien

PhD student

Thesis: Vision of a World Conqueror: Nādir Shāh (r. 1736-47) and the Emerging Body in Persian Royal Portraiture

Supervisor: Dr Sussan Babaie

Funded by Courtauld Scholarship, Soudavar Memorial Foundation Grant, Gibb Centenary Scholarship, Iran Heritage Foundation Academic Research Grant, Society for Court Studies Research and Publication Bursary, and Courtauld Travel Grant

My research examines the portraits of Nādir Shāh (r. 1736-47) and their role in forging the emergence of Persian royal portraiture, and in particular, the foregrounding of the body of the king. Once described as the ‘Emperor of Persia, the Terror of the East, the Wonder of Europe’, Nādir rose from obscurity and eventually seized the throne from the Safavids to become one of the most feared conquerors of his time, with an empire stretching from the Caucasus to India. His image is captured in a large and richly diverse group of portraits in which he assumes different postures and personae. Significantly, it is the earliest extant corpus of portraits of an Iranian ruler, and yet, the majority of this extraordinary repertoire have never been critically studied, nor have they been analysed collectively as a phenomenon linked to the emergence of royal portraiture or as a legacy of Nādir’s posture of kingship. This thesis charts a new path by considering the historical specificities that motivated Nādir to turn to portraiture as a means to project his absolute, self-referential authority and his claim to legitimacy through martial triumphs.

Before the eighteenth century, single royal portraits were virtually absent from Persian painting; kings were embedded in banquet and battle scenes, and kingship was represented as a collective political body. This research traces how the royal image was reinvented from the corporate to the corporeal under Nādir while maintaining dialogic relationships with the Safavid past (1501-1722) and the Qajar future (1785-1925). The notion of the body politic—its interpretations not only in contemporary European political thought but also in Iranian and Indian theories—provides an interpretive tool to contrast Nādir’s self-display with the Safavid courtly assemblages. My thesis will also attempt to encode the royal body in Persian portraiture as a site for display of absolute power.

For Nādir’s portraits, artists drew inspiration from styles as diverse as historical Persian (Sasanian through Safavid), contemporary Mughal Indian and European imperial imagery to devise a compellingly competitive style of royal portraiture. This thesis argues that these portraits helped represent the world conquering aspirations of a new warrior and catapult Nādir to the pictorial pantheon of great kings.


  • Master of Arts in the History of Art (Distinction): Persian Painting and Transcultural Visuality from the Mongols to the Safavids, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London (2015)
    – Dissertation: “Historian as Painter, Portrait as Memory: Re-Presenting Karīm Khān Zand and the Portrait of the King in Eighteenth-Century Iran”
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (summa cum laude), University of Miami, Florida (2013)
    – Art history thesis: “Seizing the World in Fantasy: Foreign Relations and Political Supremacy in Jahāngīr’s Allegorical Paintings”
    – Studio art concentration: figurative painting and portraiture
    – Marion Jefferson Award for Outstanding Achievement in Art (Department of Art and Art History Award, 2013)
  • Postgraduate Diploma in Legal Practice, The College of Law, Guildford (2002)
  • Postgraduate Diploma in Law (Common Professional Examination), The College of Law, Birmingham (2000)
  • Bachelor of Engineering with Honours (high 2:1), University of Birmingham (1993)


Professional Experience

  • Associate Lecturer, Display as Discourse: Persian Art in London Collections (BA Topic Course), The Courtauld Institute of Art (October-December 2019)
  • Research Assistant for the UK tour of Precious and Rare: Islamic Metalwork from the Courtauld, jointly organised by the Courtauld Gallery and the Islamic Art and Material Culture Subject Specialist Network. Supervised by Dr Alexandra Gerstein, Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The Courtauld Gallery (March-June 2019)
  • Teaching Assistant, Urban Sites and Sights: Istanbul, Isfahan and Delhi in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (BA Foundations Lecture Course), The Courtauld Institute of Art (November 2018-January 2019)
  • Research Assistant to Dr Sussan Babaie (November 2017-November 2018)
  • Curatorial Assistant, Art of the Islamic Worlds, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Supervised by Dr Aimée Froom, Curator, Art of the Islamic Worlds. Contributed to Bestowing Beauty: Masterpieces from Persian Lands; Colors of the Oasis: Central Asian Ikats; Arts of Islamic Lands: Selections from the al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait; Collections in Conversation; and Art of the Islamic Worlds permanent collection (October 2015-June 2017)
  • Curatorial Intern, Islamic and South Asian Art, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Supervised by Dr Amy Landau, Director of Curatorial Affairs and Curator of Islamic and South and Southeast Asian Art. Contributed to Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts; and the Islamic Art permanent collection (August-October 2015)

Research Interests

  • 18th-century arts of Iran primarily (Afsharid/Nādirī and Zand), but also arts from adjacent periods (late Safavid and Qajar)
  • Royal portraiture, representation of power, and transcultural mobility
  • Theories of the king’s body and corporeality
  • Visual representation of kings and kingship in the Persianate world (Iran and Mughal India)


Conferences and Publications

  • Contributing author of Bestowing Beauty: Masterpieces from Persian Lands, Selections from the Hossein Afshar Collection, ed. Aimée Froom (Houston: Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 2020); writer for all of the royal portraits and figural paintings from the late 17th to 19th centuries
  • “The Shah’s New Body: Nādir Shāh (r. 1736-47) and Persian Royal Portraiture”, Summer School, The Courtauld Institute of Art (2019)
  • Invited paper “Shāhānshāh of India: Nādir Shāh and the Visual Legacy of his Delhi Conquest”, Illustration of History workshop, Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, Universität Hamburg (2019)
  • Invited paper “The Body of Nādir Shāh (r. 1736-47): from the Corporate to the Corporeal in Persian Royal Imagery”, Decolonising the Self: Representations of the Self in Art Theory and Practice across Cultures, SOAS, University of London (2018)
  • Panel chair, Eighth Early Modern Postgraduate Symposium: Perceiving Processions, The Courtauld Institute of Art (2018)
  • Panel chair, Annual Postgraduate Symposium, The Courtauld Institute of Art (2018)
  • Contributor of The Legacy of Persian Art: Masterpieces from the Hossein Afshar Collection, ed. Aimée Froom (Houston: Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 2017)
  • Panel chair, Seventh Early Modern Postgraduate Symposium: Recasting Reproduction (1500–1800), The Courtauld Institute of Art (2017)
  • “Illustrating the Sufi Path: The Visual Narrative of a Late Fifteenth-Century Manuscript of The Conference of the Birds”, Second Biennial Symposia Iranica, University of Cambridge (2015)
  • “The Imaginary World of Emperor Jahāngīr: Political Encounters and Visual Propaganda in Mughal Allegorical Painting”, 2013 McGill Institute of Islamic Studies Graduate Symposium, McGill University (2013)

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