Art

Pen Box with Flowers, Birds, and Portraits

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Pen Box with Flowers, Birds, and Portraits, 1873-74 (H. 1290)
Pen Box
19th century
Qajar period
Creation Place: Iran
Opaque and semi-opaque watercolor on prepared pasteboard under shellac varnish
4 x 21.7 x 3.3 cm (1 9/16 x 8 9/16 x 1 5/16 in.)
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, The Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art
, 2002.50.110
Department of Islamic & Later Indian Art
,
Description
On the dark brown upper surface of this pen case, European portrait roundels of a man and a woman are separated by three bird-and- flower vignettes. These unite different flora, with the rose predominating at the center, its branching stem inhabited by a solitary red-crested bird and insects fluttering around it. Haydar Ali’s signature and the date of production appear in miniature white script in the spaces between the central bird-and- flower grouping and the flanking portraits. To add texture, the artist has used a technique combining wash and stippling in fine dots of pigment. The long sides of the pen case continue the bird- and- flower theme, expanding the botanical repertoire to include carnations, hazelnuts, and tulips. There are occasional, and presumably intentional, instances of visual ambiguity where what appear to be plants and flowers could be interpreted as insects. The base is painted in a solid red pigment with an overlying elegant scroll of flowers and palmettes executed in gold. The outer body of the extractable drawer follows the pattern of the base, while its end, built up to be flush with the surface of the outer case when the drawer is closed, is decorated with daisies, poppies, and an iris. The unadorned inner surface of the case reveals the method of construction through many layers of paper glued one upon another. A single word, muhkam (robust, strong), written at an indeterminate time, attests the physical integrity of the object. Haydar Ali, son of Muhammad Ismail, was active in the 1860s and 1870s and worked in the style of Najaf Ali. Several works signed by him are known.
Provenance
[Hadji Baba Rabbi House of Antiquities, Teheran, 1973], sold; to Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood, Belmont, MA (1973-2002), gift; to Harvard Art Museums, 2002.
Bibliography
Mary McWilliams, Closely Focused, Intensely Felt: Selections from the Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art, brochure, Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 2004)

Mary McWilliams, ed., In Harmony: The Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art, exh. cat., ed. Mary McWilliams Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 2013), pp. 67-69, ill.; p. 208, cat. 56, ill.

Exhibition History
Closely Focused, Intensely Felt: Selections from the Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 08/07/2004 - 01/02/2005
In Harmony: The Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 01/31/2013 - 06/01/2013