Lacquered papier-mâché box in exhibition shines a light on aristocratic life

By Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator

To mark the new exhibition, Allure of the Near East: Treasures from the Huntington Museum of Art (June 18‒August 21, 2022), we hope that you enjoy this box in our collection. If you visit the museum, this work is on display in the Small Exhibits Gallery (located outside the Groh Gallery).



Unknown (Iran, Qajar Dynasty)
Lacquered Papier-Mâché Box, ca. mid–late 19th century
Paint and lacquer on paper over wood
7.125″h x 16.5″w x 11.5″d
Collection of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
Gift of John Buchholz, A2762,92.1938

This elaborately decorated lacquer box contains lively scenes of court life on the top and inside of its lid. Works like this example were typically commissioned by aristocrats for display in their homes. While various courtiers (likely an aristocratic couple) sit in a garden pavilion of a palace on the cover’s top, men on horseback are portrayed hunting deer, game, and other wild animals on its inside. Each of the scenes idyllically represents the pastimes of noble society in Qajar Iran in which vegetation, food, and mirth abound. These themes are accentuated by the intricate floral and vegetal patterns that adorn the entire work. This casket was made from a base of papier-mâché to which a thinly coated layer of a fine plaster or gesso was applied to its surface. Thereafter, painters executed designs in miniature technique and applied a transparent lacquer or varnish to the whole piece that protected the paintings while enriching and softening their colors.

From 1789 to 1925, Shahs of the ruling Qajar Dynasty in Iran witnessed an era of political and social reform, modernization, and industrialization that was shaped by diplomatic encounters with European nations. During this time, decorative objects and paintings were influenced by western techniques and forms, most notably the introduction of European portraiture techniques, perspective, volume, and spatial recession.

This WeekendArt is sponsored by Mr. & Mrs. William P. Young, Jr.

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