Little did I know that my first intern assignment at the Freer|Sackler this summer would be worthy of a detective novel. Researching an Indian rosewater sprinkler took me down a few surprising paths and underscored the importance of careful visual analysis.
Perfumes have long been popular in India, and sprinklers containing perfumed water were an important part of courtly ritual. A silver rosewater sprinkler in the Freer Gallery of Art’s collection was originally attributed to an imperial Mughal workshop, circa 1700. But Dr. Debra Diamond, curator of South and Southeast Asian art, believed that the flower motifs displayed on the sprinkler were not consistent with those that adorn Mughal works. She had a hunch that the sprinkler might be from Lucknow—a city in northern India—and produced for the Awadhi court. So, she put me on the case.
To begin, I looked at pictures of colonial era Lucknow to see if floral decoration on buildings throughout the city matched the sprinkler. I soon realized that I was approaching the project incorrectly. Looking at photos of Lucknow from the nineteenth century was not enough. Without any understanding of the history of the city and its rulers, I had no idea how to situate the floral motifs from the sprinkler within Lucknow’s chronology or gauge their importance.
I started to research the Awadhi court so I could construct a timeline of important events. This new direction of inquiry proved far more fruitful. In 1722, the Mughal rulers of India appointed a new governor for the state of Awadh (located in the modern state of Uttar Pradesh). The new governor moved the state’s capital from Lucknow to Faizabad. Over the next few decades, as the power of the Mughal Empire waned, the rulers of Awadh affirmed their own sovereignty and assumed complete control of the state. In1775 a young ambitious ruler, Asaf al-Daula, came to power and returned the Awadh capital to Lucknow. This move launched a flourishing period of art and culture in the region, which lasted until al-Daula’s death in 1797.
This information was vital to my investigation. Because al-Daula sponsored high levels of artistic and architectural production, I began to look at the building projects he commissioned in Lucknow. I discovered that the five-petaled pendant flower at the center of the Freer|Sackler’s sprinkler is stylistically similar to flowers that adorn exteriors and interiors of religious and secular buildings throughout Lucknow.
The motif, which occurs in both five- and seven-petaled variations, is most commonly found at the apex of archways above doorways and windows. Prominent examples of the motif can be found at the Bara Imambara complex, which includes the Turkish Gate and the Asfi Mosque. The construction of these buildings began in 1784. While none of the flowers represented in these architectural settings is identical to the one on the sprinkler, the motif seems to have provided opportunity for artistic innovation and variation; for example, each flower motif that appears above the arches on the Turkish Gate varies slightly from its neighbor.
Extending my investigation beyond the flowers, I discovered that the sprinkler’s neck distinctly resembles certain columns found on Lucknow buildings from the late eighteenth century. Like the sprinkler’s spout, these columns are fluted and ribbed. And acanthus leaves typically embellish the columns’ capital and base in the same manner as on the sprinkler.
During my research, I drew heavily on the scholarship of Stephen Markel, senior research curator for South and Southeast Asian art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In his exhibition catalogue India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow, Markel observes that al-Daula’s patronage catalyzed the development of the “mature Lucknow style,” which he describes as predominantly ornamented with stylized flowers bursting into bloom and flowering branches with perching birds. By comparing the luxury objects featured in Markel’s catalogue with the Freer rosewater sprinkler, I realized that the similarities were too striking to be coincidence—the sprinkler undoubtedly belongs to the mature Lucknow style. This information led me to conclude that the sprinkler was produced in Lucknow, probably between 1775 and 1800. Dr. Diamond was correct!
This project was a highly valuable experience as it helped me sharpen and improve my visual analysis skills. Careful examination of hundreds of images of Lucknow’s architecture and luxury goods enabled me to recognize subtle stylistic differences that I may have overlooked previously. I also gained insight into the type of in-depth research required for attributing, dating, and subsequently labeling an object in a collection—skills I will carry forward in future art historical work.
Come check out the rosewater sprinkler on October 14, when the Freer|Sackler reopens to the public. You can find it in Freer gallery 1, where you’ll see my research embedded into the tombstone for the object!