Image and Empire

Image and Empire

Arthur M. Sackler Museum

A beautifully detailed cheetah, painted in opaque watercolor and rendered with dark spots and fine wisps of hair, greets visitors at the second-floor gallery of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum.

The wild and exotic beast, romanticized and only imagined in the minds of many, is but a small taste of the visual feast in “Image and Empire: Picturing India during the Colonial Age.” “Image and Empire” features about 50 different works of art that capture different views of colonial India. The objects in the exhibit come from Harvard and from other local institutions and lenders such as Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Peabody Essex Museum and private collections.

The paintings, decorative objects, figurines, photographs and sketches not only document the colonial era (17th-20th centuries) in India, but also demonstrate the cross-pollination between British and Indian artistic traditions—an artistic and cultural exchange that led artists from both countries to redefine their stylistic conventions.

“Image and Empire” juxtaposes different works to give a comprehensive view of “courtly art” created for British patrons and Indian aristocrats, as well as “tourist art” including figurines and opaque watercolors made en masse. “The mix of objects is important,” said Kimberly Masteller, assistant curator of Islamic and later Indian art and curator of the show. “It allows the visitor to gain a broad perspective of the kind of art that was created for all audiences.”

The most prominent paintings—a cityscape of Benares, snake charmers and a yogi—in the exhibit are by André Champollion. Two years after graduating from Harvard in 1902, Champollion traveled to India and created these magnificently detailed oil paintings.

The informal centerpiece of the object display is a beautiful 16th century decorative box made of ivory and wood and inlaid with semiprecious stones.

The works record India’s history of being colonized by the British, French, Dutch, and Portuguese. They “represent colonial India for the western viewer,” said Masteller. “I wanted to display art from the colonial era but not tell the viewers what to think. Hopefully they will come away with their own ideas.”

The exhibit includes photographs from Prince Edward’s imperial trip to India in 1875. They capture his journey along the coast of India, the British Empire’s first passage into India since the deposition of the last Mughal emperor.

Masteller mentioned excitedly that “finding the right objects is like uncovering a mystery—as you choose, you begin to understand the life of the objects.” Visitors may uncover their own mysteries and dispel stereotypes about India as they view this well-researched and organized display of art from colonial India. —Christopher W. Platts

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