Janet O’Brien

PhD graduate and former Associate Lecturer

Thesis: Nādir Shāh: The Emergence of Royal Portraiture and a New Body Politic in Eighteenth-Century Iran

Supervisor: Professor Sussan Babaie

Funded by the Smithsonian Institution Predoctoral Fellowship, Courtauld Scholarship (with contributions from Lord Jacob Rothschild, Edmond J Safra Philanthropic Foundation, Guildford Foundation, and the University of London Studentship Fund), Soudavar Memorial Foundation Grant, Iran Heritage Foundation Academic Research Grant, Gibb Centenary Scholarship, Society for Court Studies Research and Publication Bursary, and Courtauld Travel Grant

In a little over a decade, Nādir Shāh (r.1736-47) ousted the last remaining Safavids, founded the Afsharid dynasty (1736-96), and became the fiercest conqueror of his time, with an empire stretching from the Caucasus to India. His image is captured in diverse representations, including the earliest extant corpus of single portraits of an Iranian ruler. Yet, they have never been studied as a phenomenon that ushered in the new genre of royal portraiture in Iran. Individual depictions of kings were virtually absent in the Safavid period (1501-1722) despite the popularity of portraiture, and kingship was represented as a ruling institution. My primary inquiry traces how, and why, the royal image was reinvented from the corporate to the corporeal under Nādir, while maintaining dialogic relationships with the Safavid past and the Zand (1751-94) and Qajar (1785-1925) future. Theories of the body politic, never before applied in Persian painting, provide a methodological tool to contrast the divergent displays of power and underlying ideologies.

Employing the royal body as the thematic backbone of a three-part analysis, this study investigates, first, Nādir’s single-figure depictions and the fashioning of his body into a world conqueror endowed with farr (divine glory) and a national saviour of Īrān-zamīn (Land of Iran); second, the foregrounding of the royal self in his group compositions; and third, his Indian portraits, specifically how and why the body of an Iranian ruler is translated into the local vocabularies and inserted into the Mughal pictorial genealogy and the British colonial narrative.

The thesis concludes with a consideration of how the image of Nādir traversed both empires and epochs. All his paintings were made after the conquest of India in 1739, an event that propelled him onto the world stage. His emergent body in painting needs to be framed against the rhetoric of empire and his claim of universal sovereignty as the shāhanshāh (king of kings). His painters drew from the visual languages of Iran, India, and Europe to devise a polyglot image that crosses cultural and religious boundaries. Their creations gave rise to a new body of the shah, one that served as a model for portraits of Zand and Qajar rulers. Through this focussed study of royal portraiture, I aim to put forward new ways of seeing representations of Iranian kings and kingship, and to attend to the neglected eighteenth century in Persian painting.


  • Master of Arts in the History of Art (Distinction): Persian Painting and Transcultural Visuality from the Mongols to the Safavids, The Courtauld, 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

  • Smithsonian Institution Predoctoral Fellow, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington DC. Advisor: Dr. Massumeh Farhad, Chief Curator and The Ebrahimi Family Curator of Persian, Arab, and Turkish Art, Senior Associate Director for Research (June 2020-May 2022)
  • Associate Lecturer, Display as Discourse: Persian Art in London Collections (BA Topic Course), The Courtauld (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. Supervisor: 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 (November 2018-January 2019)
  • Research Assistant to Prof. Sussan Babaie, The Courtauld (November 2017-November 2018)
  • Curatorial Assistant, Art of the Islamic Worlds, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Supervisor: Dr. Aimée Froom, Curator, Art of the Islamic Worlds. Contributed to Bestowing Beauty: Masterpieces from Persian Lands―Selections from the Hossein Afshar CollectionArts of Islamic Lands: Selections from the al-Sabah Collection, KuwaitColors of the Oasis: Central Asian IkatsArt of the Islamic Worlds permanent collection; and Collections in Conversation (October 2015-June 2017)
  • Curatorial Intern, Islamic and South Asian Art, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Supervisor: 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

  • The art of Iran in the eighteenth century (Nādirī/Afsharid and Zand) and adjacent periods (Safavid and Qajar)
  • Royal portraiture and visual representation of kingship in Iran and India
  • Transcultural visuality and the confluence of Persian, Indian, and European painting traditions
  • Concepts of kingship in Iran and India
  • The king’s body as a site of power, and notions of the body politic
  • Ideas of empire and universal sovereignty
  • Histories of Iran and India in the eighteenth century


  • “Dismembering the Corporate: The Single Portraits of Nādir Shāh and The Changing Body Politic in Post-Safavid Iran”, in The Idea of Iran Vol. 11, ed. Charles Meville (London: I.B. Tauris, forthcoming 2022)
  • “Picturing Nādir Shāh’s Conquest of India: From the Tārīkh-i Nādirī  Illustrations to the Battle of Karnal Iconography”, manuscript cultures 18 (forthcoming 2022)
  • 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 the royal portraits and figurative paintings from the late 17th to 19th century

Conference Papers and Lectures

  • Invited paper “Embodying Empire in the Portraits of Nādir Shāh”, Oxford Political Thought Seminar, Middle East Centre, University of Oxford (2022)
  • Guest lecture “A Taste for Islamic Art in Europe: Inlaid Metalwork in the Courtauld Collection”, Cross-Cultural Encounters: Europe and the Islamic World, National Gallery London (2021)
  • Invited paper “The Shah’s New Body: Nādir and the Rise of Royal Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century Iran”, Research Talk Series, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (2021)
  • Invited paper “Dismembering the Corporate: The Single Portraits of Nādir Shāh and the Changing Body Politic in Post-Safavid Iran”, The Idea of Iran: Iran in Transition to a New World Order organised by SOAS and University of Cambridge, and sponsored by the Soudavar Memorial Foundation (2020)
  • “The Body Translated: Nādir Shāh of Iran, Conqueror of India … Antecedent of the British?”, The Courtauld Third Year PhD Symposium (2020)
  • Invited paper “Shāhanshāh 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)
  • “The Shah’s New Body: Nādir Shāh (r. 1736-47) and Persian Royal Portraiture”, Summer School, The Courtauld (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 (2018)
  • “Illustrating the Sufi Path: The Visual Narrative of a Late Fifteenth-Century Manuscript of The Conference of the Birds”, Symposia Iranica Second Biennial Conference on Iranian Studies, University of Cambridge (2015)
  • “The Imaginary World of Emperor Jahāngīr: Political Encounters and Visual Propaganda in Mughal Allegorical Painting”, McGill Institute of Islamic Studies Third Annual Graduate Student Symposium, McGill University (2013)