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Identification and Creation
Object Number
2002.50.106.A-B
Title
Mirror Case with Birds and Flowers
Classification
Mirrors
Work Type
mirror case
Date
18th-19th century
Places
Creation Place: Middle East, Iran
Period
Qajar period
Persistent Link
https://hvrd.art/o/148153
Physical Descriptions
Medium
Opaque and semi-opaque watercolor on prepared pasteboard under varnish
Dimensions
15.4 x 19 cm (6 1/16 x 7 1/2 in.)
Provenance
[Mansour Gallery, London, 1978], gift; to Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood, Belmont, MA (by 1978-2002), gift; to Harvard Art Museums, 2002.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, The Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art
Accession Year
2002
Object Number
2002.50.106.A-B
Division
Asian and Mediterranean Art
Contact
am_asianmediterranean@harvard.edu
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Descriptions
Description
Among the most characteristic and compelling art forms of the Qajar period (1779–1924) in Iran are works in “lacquer.” Technically distinct from East Asian lacquers, these are essentially an extension of traditional opaque watercolor painting on paper to three-dimensional forms; their general structure consists of a pasteboard support covered by a white ground, over which the decoration is painted in opaque watercolor, with a final coating of transparent shellac. Fashioned as an irregular octagon, this lidded mirror case depicts the popular pairing of rose and nightingale (gul va bulbul). This theme, which embraced bird-and- flower compositions more generally, proliferated during the Zand (1750–94) and Qajar dynastic eras, when it was represented in both paintings and ceramics. As in Persian poetry, it signified the Sufi concept of the lover (nightingale) who declares his longing for the beloved (rose)—a signification that could be taken literally, as an expression of earthly love, or metaphorically and spiritually, as the soul’s yearning for union with God.
The singing nightingale on the cover of this mirror case is positioned amid a dense spray of mixed flowers, a full-blown rose towering above all others. Interwoven with the stem of the rose is the woody branch of a fruit tree, studded with pink buds and blossoms. A small, winged insect hovers next to one of the rosebuds. The base of the case features the same design as the lid, but the absence of a border offers a larger field for the image, to which slight compositional differences have been introduced—a bud that is closed where its counterpart on the lid is open, for instance, and an insect that has now grown full wings. On the dark brown inner surface of the cover—which does not appear to have been hinged to the case—a floral spray, painted in golden washes and stippling, is rendered coppery beneath an orange-red varnish. In contrast to the full-color images on the outer surfaces, this vignette has a nocturnal and spectral quality. Such emphasis on creating formal contrast between inner and outer surfaces despite their shared imagery had been a feature of bookbinding since the early Safavid period or before.
Ironically, the mirror case, however delightful, fosters melancholy and longing: while it fixes beauty as a miniature garden preserved from the destructive forces of nature and gives visual form to the eternal dimension of love and desire, the repeated use of the mirror within it only underscores the transience of physical loveliness. Its opposing temporal dimensions, eternal and transient, are hinted at in the contrasting designs of the outer and inner cover. In this way, the mirror case carries a message comparable to that of the poetic ghazal, in which the thorn of the rose “provides a symbol of the unpleasant fact of mortality” and directs the beholder to focus on “the pursuit of true riches, stored in the heart and incorruptible.”

Published Catalogue Text: In Harmony: The Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art , written 2013
53

Mirror case with birds and flowers
Iran, Qajar period, 18th–19th century
Opaque and semi-opaque watercolor on prepared pasteboard under varnish [1]
15.4 × 19 cm (6 1/16 × 7 1/2 in.)
2002.50.106.A–B

Among the most characteristic and compelling art forms of the Qajar period (1779–1924) in Iran are works in “lacquer.” Technically distinct from East Asian lacquers, these are essentially an extension of traditional opaque watercolor painting on paper to three-dimensional forms; their general structure consists of a pasteboard support covered by a white ground, over which the decoration is painted in opaque watercolor, with a final coating of transparent shellac.[2]

Fashioned as an irregular octagon, this lidded mirror case depicts the popular pairing of rose and nightingale (gul va bulbul). This theme, which embraced bird-and-flower compositions more generally, proliferated during the Zand (1750–94) and Qajar dynastic eras, when it was represented in both paintings and ceramics. As in Persian poetry, it signified the Sufi concept of the lover (nightingale) who declares his longing for the beloved (rose)—a signification that could be taken literally, as an expression of earthly love, or metaphorically and spiritually, as the soul’s yearning for union with God.

The singing nightingale on the cover of this mirror case is positioned amid a dense spray of mixed flowers, a full-blown rose towering above all others. Interwoven with the stem of the rose is the woody branch of a fruit tree, studded with pink buds and blossoms. A small, winged insect hovers next to one of the rosebuds. The base of the case features the same design as the lid, but the absence of a border offers a larger field for the image, to which slight compositional differences have been introduced—a bud that is closed where its counterpart on the lid is open, for instance, and an insect that has now grown full wings.

On the dark brown inner surface of the cover—which does not appear to have been hinged to the case—a floral spray, painted in golden washes and stippling, is rendered coppery beneath an orange-red varnish. In contrast to the full-color images on the outer surfaces, this vignette has a nocturnal and spectral quality. Such emphasis on creating formal contrast between inner and outer surfaces despite their shared imagery had been a feature of bookbinding since the early Safavid period or before.

Ironically, the mirror case, however delightful, fosters melancholy and longing: while it fixes beauty as a miniature garden preserved from the destructive forces of nature and gives visual form to the eternal dimension of love and desire, the repeated use of the mirror within it only underscores the transience of physical loveliness. Its opposing temporal dimensions, eternal and transient, are hinted at in the contrasting designs of the outer and inner cover. In this way, the mirror case carries a message comparable to that of the poetic ghazal, in which the thorn of the rose “provides a symbol of the unpleasant fact of mortality” and directs the beholder to focus on “the pursuit of true riches, stored in the heart and incorruptible.”[3]

David J. Roxburgh

[1] This mirror case was recently restored with a thick coating of varnish that was spray applied, according to Narayan Khandekar, Senior Conservation Scientist, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Harvard Art Museums.
[2] See, in this volume, David Roxburgh’s essay, “The Qajar Lacquer Object,” 65–75.
[3] Meisami 1987, 294.

Publication History

Mary McWilliams, ed., In Harmony: The Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art, exh. cat., Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 2013), pp. 64-66, ill.; pp. 205-206, cat. 53, 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

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at am_asianmediterranean@harvard.edu