Painter of the Shah

For the Dutch East India Company trade with Persia was the “diamond cherry on top”. The Persian appetite for anything the VOC (Dutch East India Company (1602–1800) imported to Persia, was insatiable, more so than any other trading post. For decades the shah had been attempting to invigorate what he rightly perceived as the underdeveloped trade potential of Persia. He already sold silk to several European partners, who transported it mainly overland to Aleppo, on a caravan route that was not only insecure but also crossed the Ottoman Empire, with which Persia was often at war. With the arrival of the Dutch and their seaborne empire, brilliant new opportunities presented themselves. Soon the company had inland way stations in Shiraz and Lar, supporting the nine-hundred-kilometer land route between Isfahan and the port factory at Gamron, renamed Bandar ‘Abbas (Port ‘Abbas) in honor of the shah after he and the English East India Company drove out the Portuguese in 1615. From there the armed merchant fleet of the Dutch East India Company had access to all the harbors of the world sea. The benefits of trade with Persia to the Dutch East India Company and its personnel were phenomenal.

And yet, for all their value to the Safavid Empire, their fate lay in the hands of a painter. Jan Lucasz Van Hasselt (b. before 1600, d. after 1653) was a Flemish painter who probably arrived in Isfahan in 1617 and was soon taken into the service of the Shah, who gave him the title of ustad naqqash (master painter). The painter made portraits in Constantinople and Cairo, and sketches of antiquities and in Isfahan he drew the elephants in the Shah’s menagerie. In 1621 the Carmelites report that a Flemish painter was present at an audience given to them by Shah ‘Abbas I. It is said that the shah paid him a princely annual salary of one thousand zecchini, a Venetian gold coin. To the Dutch East India Company, the fact that this valuable contact person at the Safavid court was a painter was more of a potential embarrassment than anything else. In the numerous references to Van Hasselt in the VOC papers he is often called “painter to the king.” However, the importance of Jan van Hasselt for the establishment of VOC operations in Persia cannot be overstated. When a Dutch envoy arrived in Persia without papers of authorization it was Van Hasselt who convinced the Shah to allow them entry and to show them the same courtesy that he did for Portuguese and English envoys. Van Hasselt’s prestige with the Dutch was enhanced considerably in 1625 when the shah included him in an embassy to the Dutch Republic led by the court factor Musa Beg. Shah ‘Abbas attached Van Hasselt to the mission in order to recruit more Dutch painters for the Persian court. Van Hasselt however saw himself more as an ambassador than merely an artist recruiter. So sensitive was the VOC about Van Hasselt that they did not import paintings to Persia in case the paintings are either better or worse than his own and might cause potential damage to trade relations with the wealthy Persians, amongst other reasons.

Maybe it was too many years spent as the shah’s favourite or years spent over-estimating his own importance in Persia, but Van Hasselt would finally be the cause of his own “demise”. In the spring of 1630 he had sailed to Holland with a return fleet commanded by Van den Broecke. He carried with him a letter to the States General from Shah ‘Abbas, who however had died in January 1629. Presenting his credentials in The Hague, Van Hasselt claimed that they were respected by the new shah, Safi, as well. He presented his mission “not as a simple legation but as a veritable embassy, and Van Hasselt himself as the resident representing the shah in the Netherlands.” He entered into negotiations with the States General concerning new rights for traders of “the Persian nation,” a designation that covered himself as well as native Persians. On February 7, 1631, the States General actually passed a resolution providing these rights. That resolution was unique in the history of the Dutch Republic: In 1631 van Hasselt in fact managed to conclude a treaty with the States General on behalf of the shah, according to which Iranian merchants in Holland received the same rights as Dutch merchants in Iran ... This remarkable document [was] the only treaty ever concluded between the Dutch Republic and an Asian power to include bilateral rights. The treaty was, however, never put into effect. It cut into the turf of the Dutch East India Company, which refused to credit the new arrangements and which from the head office in Amsterdam followed Van Hasselt’s doings with antagonistic suspicion.

And then came the crunch. In October 1631 new letters arrived from Shah Safi, addressed to the stadtholder and the States General and making no mention whatsoever of Van Hasselt. All credit lost, the painter who probably played the most important diplomatic and commercial role of any Dutch artist of the seventeenth century, a role in which he has been compared to Peter Paul Rubens, met his Waterloo. After the departure and disgrace of Jan Lucasz. van Hasselt, the Safavid court took on three other Dutch artists as painter to the shah. But they, like Van Hasselt, came to an unfortunate end in typical VOC circumstances: one through disease, one through dissipation, and one through corruption. There are no known paintings of Van Hasselt that have survived.

Excerpts from Mediating Netherlandish Art and Material Culture in Asia - by Amsterdam University Press

The cover image of the paper is a Persian miniature that speaks most eloquently of the interest of Persian artists in Europe. It is a posthumous portrait by Mu’in Musawwir of his master Riza-y ‘Abassi, shown as he was making a miniature of a European.