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Tilly Kettle, 1735–1786

A Woman of the Court at Faizabad, India [2021-present, YCBA]

Former Title(s):

Dancing Girl [2016-2021, YCBA]

An Indian Dancing Girl with a Hookah [1985, Cormack, YCBA Concise Catalogue]

Young Woman with Hookah, Probably at the Court of Nawab of Oudh [1978, The British in India, exhibition catalogue]

Portrait of an Indian Girl, full length, wearing a red silk sari trimmed with gold and jewellery, holding a hookah, standing on a balcony [1965, Sotheby’s sales catalogue]

Portrait of an Indian Girl, full length, smoking a hookah, standing in an interior, with a view onto a courtyard on the left [1959, Christie’s sales catalog]

A whole-length of a Gentoo woman in full dress with a hooker [1783, artist's sale]

Materials & Techniques:
Oil on canvas
76 3/4 × 47 3/4 inches (194.9 × 121.3 cm), Frame: 80 1/8 × 51 1/2 × 2 5/8 inches (203.5 × 130.8 × 6.7 cm)

signed and dated 1772

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Paintings and Sculpture
Subject Terms:
anklets | arch | bracelets (jewelry) | columns | costume | dancer | dancing | girl | gold | hookah | interior | jewelry | jewelry | nose ring | Orientalism | pipe | portrait | red | wall | white | woman | women
Associated Places:
Not on view
IIIF Manifest:

This painting likely represents a woman of the court of Faizabad, where the London-born artist Tilly Kettle came at the invitation of Shuja ud-Daula, nawab of Oudh (d. 1775), the year this painting was made. Although the woman's identity is now unknown, her pose and clothing are consistent with those of women who performed the "nautch" dance to court elites and East India Company officials.
The painting has been cut down on three sides. The original composition probably accommodated a male figure to the left, to whom the woman offers the hookah pipe. The canvas shows signs of having been rolled up, presumably when Kettle returned to London from India. This makes it likely to be a "whole-length portrait of a Gentoo woman in full dress with a hooker," which was sold from Kettle's home following his bankruptcy in 1783.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2021

Little is known about the history of this intriguing painting. The inscribed date tells us that Tilly Kettle painted it in Faizabad, in northern India, at the court of the ruler, Shujaud-Daula. However, its origins, early ownership, and status (genre painting or portrait) remain mysterious. The dance or “nautch” was a traditional entertainment for aristocratic Indians and a source of fascination for Europeans in search of the exotic and erotic. Although dancers were often associated with prostitution, many were highly educated courtesans and noblewomen, and Kettle’s richly dressed figure may have had that status. Dancers were often depicted performing for a reclining man, or group of men, and it is possible that the painting originally included such an audience, which would make sense of the dancer’s otherwise enigmatic gesture. Technical analysis has confirmed that the painting has been cut down on the top, bottom, and left side.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2016

During the same trip that Kettle painted the Nawab of Oudh, he also created this monumental portrait of a dancing girl at the Nawab's court. She may be a practitioner of Kathak, a classical form of dance practiced in the north of India, which grew out of a tradition of telling stories through dance. Dancing girls at the court often had the status of celebrities, and the opportunity to see them perform was highly-prized by Western visitors.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2005

Adapting the Eye: an archive of the British in India, 1770-1830 (Yale Center for British Art, 2011-10-11 - 2011-12-31) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

India's Fabled City - The Art of Courtly Lucknow (Musee National of Asian Art Guimet, 2011-04-06 - 2011-07-11) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

India's Fabled City - The Art of Courtly Lucknow (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2010-12-12 - 2011-02-27) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

The Raj - India and the British 1600 - 1947 (National Portrait Gallery, 1990-10-19 - 1991-03-17) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

The Splendours of Princely India (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985-11 - 1986-02-23) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Mildred Archer, India and British Portraiture, 1770-1825, Sotheby Parke Bernet, London, 1979, pp. 79, 457, 492, pl. I, fig. 31, ND 1327 I44 A72 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Mildred Archer, Tilly Kettle and the court of Oudh (1772-73), Apollo, vol. 95, no. 1, February 1972, p. 98, fig. 4, N1 A54 + OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

C. A. Bayly, The Raj, India and the British, 1600-1947 , National Portrait Gallery, London, 1990, pp. 116-7, cat. no. 137, DS428 R25 1990 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Nandini Bhattacharya, Reading the splendid body, Gender and consumerism in eighteenth-century British writing on India , Associated University Presses, Inc., Newark, 1998, p. 144, PR129 I5 B49 1998 (YCBA) [YCBA]

John Cooper, Imperial Balls : The Arts of Sex, War, and Dancing in India, England, and the Caribbean, 1770-1870 [PhD Dissertation, Yale University ], New Haven, CT, 2015, pp. 68, 77-78, 1.19, Available Online : ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global [ORBIS]

Malcolm Cormack, Concise Catalogue of Paintings in the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1985, pp.134-135, N590.2 A83 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Stephen Markel, India's fabled city, the art of courtly Lucknow , Prestel, Munich New York, 2010, pp. 46, 48 261, no. 188, n. 188, N7308 L83 M37 2010 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

John McAleer, Picturing India People, Places, and the World of the East India Company, The British Library, London, p. 147, fig. 4.8, N8214.5.I5 M43 2017 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Pran Nevile, Beyond the veil, Indian women in the Raj , Nevile Books, New Delhi, 2000, p. 99, fig. 62, DS422 W8 N48 2000 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Pran Nevile, The Raj revisited, Niyogi Books, New Delhi, 2012, p. 12, N8214.5.I5 N48 2012 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Holly Shaffer, Adapting the eye, An archive of the British in India, 1770-1830 , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2011, p. 18, 30, no. 78, V2359 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Robin Simon, The portrait in Britain and America, with a biographical dictionary of portrait painters 1680-1914 , Phaidon Press, Oxford, 1987, p. 201, fig. 164, ND1314 S46 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Ellis Waterhouse, Dictionary of British 18th Century Painters in Oils and Crayons, Antique Collectors' Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1981, pp. 204-5, ND466 +W38 Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

Stuart Cary Welch, The British view of India, selected English paintings from the Paul Mellon collection , American Federation of Arts, New York, 1978, N8214.5 I5 B75 1978 (YCBA) [YCBA]

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