When Christie’s illustrated this miniature in a catalogue (8th October 2015), they imposed a grey square on the core of the action, like a Victorian fig-leaf or wisp of drapery. On receiving the full image I was surprised at their prudery; far from the full-on Al Goldstein-type image from Screw magazine that I expected, it was no more revealing than a demur spread in a 1950s-era Playboy. They explained that it was done to enable the catalogue to circulate without censorship in the Middle East. Fair enough, but even Wahhabis will one day have to shed such veils of hypocrisy.
Abu’l Hasan was appointed court painter by Muhammad Shah Qajar in 1842, and sent to Italy and Paris to study European painting. This undoubtedly gave a new European flavour to Qajar painting, which is evident in this example, but doesn’t quite explain why it is so different from mainstream Qajar erotica. The man’s unusual hairstyle caught my attention: it seemed more Japanese than Persian. It then became obvious that the model for Abu’l Hasan’s composition must have been a Shunga print. The most eminent collectors of Persian paintings in France, Henri Vever and Louis Cartier, were also avid collectors of Ukiyo prints. Such prints were in circulation earlier, and their influence can be seen in the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Vuillard and others. From what is known of Abu’l Hasan’s personality, he must have loved Shunga prints, as much for the indelicacy of their subject-matter as for the delicacy of their execution.
He painted several versions, two of which at least are larger-format oil paintings. It is striking that these other versions are more typically Qajar in their formality, and it is tempting to surmise that he re-worked the theme again once he had encountered Shunga prints. This composition is probably based on a print either by Katsukawa Shuncho, Tsukika Settei or Kitagawa Utamaro. Another version of the same scene, with the five people involved differently arranged, was painted c. 1860 by Mirza Baba Naqqashbashi, but in pure Qajar style with no trace of the Ukiyo. (See Sotheby’s London, 8th October 2014, lot 79.)