Janet O'Brien - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Janet O’Brien

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Janet O’Brien

PhD candidate

Thesis: The Shah’s New Body:
Nādir and the Emergence of Royal Portraiture 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

My research examines the portraits of Nādir Shāh (r. 1736-47) and their role in forging the beginnings of royal portraiture in Iran and foregrounding the king’s body. My primary inquiry concerns how, and why, representation of Persian kingship demerged from the corporate body of the Safavid court and re-emerged as a single, corporeal body of the shah during this transformative period, and crucially, how that visual breakup was linked to contrasting notions of the body politic between the polity-centred kingship of the Safavid dynasty (1501-1722) and Nādir’s self-referential authority and absolutist rule.

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 fiercest conquerors of his time, with an empire stretching from the Caucasus to India. His image is captured in a richly diverse group of portraits drawn from Persian, Mughal, and European traditions. They constitute the earliest extant corpus of individualised portraits of an Iranian ruler, and yet, they have never been analysed collectively as a phenomenon linked to the emergence of royal portraiture. Before the eighteenth century, single portraits of kings were virtually absent in Iran, and kingship was represented as a dynastic institution. This corporate body was largely banished from Nādir’s images, allowing the body of this self-made conqueror to expand to fill the whole vision. Theories of the body politic, never-before applied in Persian painting, provide a methodological tool to contrast Nādir’s self-display with the Safavid courtly assemblies. I aim to trace how 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. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries also saw a proliferation of royal portraits in the most powerful empires, from India and Ottoman Turkey to Russia, Britain, and France. With his infamous sack of Delhi in 1739, Nādir burst onto the world stage, and his emergent body in painting needs to be viewed in that global picture of imperial rhetoric, in addition to his construction of a national identity as the saviour of irānzamīn (land of Iran). My ultimate goal is to put forward a new way of seeing and thinking about Persian royal images and to attend to the neglected eighteenth century in Persian art.



  • 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

  • Smithsonian Institution Predoctoral Fellow, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington DC. Supervised by Dr Massumeh Farhad, Interim Deputy Director for Collections and Research, Chief Curator, and The Ebrahimi Family Curator of Persian, Arab, and Turkish Art (June 2020-August 2021)
  • 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―Selections from the Hossein Afshar Collection; Arts of Islamic Lands: Selections from the al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait; Colors of the Oasis: Central Asian Ikats; Art 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. 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

  • Arts of Iran in the eighteenth century (Nādirī/Afsharid and Zand) and adjacent periods (late 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
  • Histories of Iran and India in the eighteenth century


Papers and Publications

  • 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, University of London, and University of Cambridge, and sponsored by the Soudavar Memorial Foundation, online (2020); and in The Idea of Iran, ed. Charles Meville (London: I.B. Tauris, forthcoming 2022)
  • “Body Translated: Nādir Shāh of Iran, Conqueror of India … Antecedent of the British?”, Courtauld Third Year PhD Symposium, online (2020)
  • 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 century
  • 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); and in manuscript cultures, ed. Charles Melville (forthcoming 2022)
  • “The Shah’s New Body: Nādir Shāh (r. 1736-47) and Persian Royal Portraiture”, Summer School, The Courtauld Institute of Art (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)
  • “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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