Osman Hamdi Bey (Turkish, 1842-1910) Young Woman Reading

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Lot 62
Osman Hamdi Bey
(Turkish, 1842-1910)
Young Woman Reading

Sold for £ 6,690,362 (US$ 8,952,209) inc. premium
Osman Hamdi Bey (Turkish, 1842-1910)
Young Woman Reading
signed and dated 'OHamdy Bey. 1880.' (centre left)
oil on canvas
41.1 x 51cm (16 3/16 x 20 1/16in).

Footnotes

  • Provenance
    Anon. sale, Sotheby's, London, 14 April 1976, lot 22.
    Private collection, UK (acquired from the above sale).
    Thence by descent.

    Literature
    Mustafa Cezar, Sanatta Batı'ya Açılış ve Osman Hamdi, Istanbul, 1995, Vol. II (illustrated p. 669, titled Kuran okuyan kiz).

    The kaleidoscopic nature of Osman Hamdi's biography – he was, at various times, a bureaucrat, archaeologist, museum director, architect, poet, writer, and musician - and his prominent position in both late 19th century French and Ottoman intellectual circles have made him a controversial symbol of Turkish nationalism and cultural reform in recent years. In his capacity as an Orientalist painter, moreover, he has long been considered a curiosity within the genre. Too Turkish for some, too French for others, Osman Hamdi and his works have been framed by the politics of these debates. Singled out for particular attention have been the artist's harem pictures, featuring one or more women engaged in their daily indoor and outdoor pursuits. Interpreted as both pointed commentaries on misconceptions about the harem institution in the West and dependable documents from an "insider" from the East, the actual details of these compositions have often been ignored. By returning to their subject matter and the contexts of their origins, and setting trending theories to the side, a more historical and informational understanding of these pictures can be achieved. As one of the earliest yet most representative of these harem images, Young Woman Reading of 1880 provides a particularly important and revealing case in point.1

    Young Woman Reading, known more commonly as Young Girl Reading the Qur'an, displays many of the qualities for which Osman Hamdi became best known.2 The impeccably rendered dress of the kneeling figure and the decorative background against which she is set, rich in colour and Islamic designs, are virtual signatures of the artist, as is the startling clarity of the picture's highly detailed style. The precision of its surface, however, masks significant ambiguities at its core: The book that the woman has chosen, the direction of her gaze, and even the parting of her lips and the buttons at her neck, all serve to undermine our first impressions of the scene. What begins as a pretty harem picture, in other words, becomes a complicated and multi-referential text which addresses a variety of topical issues within the landscapes of Orientalism, 19th century art history, and aspects of the artist's biography itself. Through its transposition of British, French, and Turkish models, and its manipulation of their themes, Young Woman Reading demonstrates the unique nature of Osman Hamdi's Orientalism, and his artful game.

    Osman Hamdi's artistic education began in Paris in the early 1860s, in the studio of Gustave Boulanger and under the probable influence of Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose art and presence as a teacher dominated the Parisian art world at the time. (One of the first Ottoman artists to bridge the artistic worlds of Turkey and France and to adopt the École's academic figurative style, Osman Hamdi modelled for Boulanger before formally enrolling as a student in his atelier).3 The impact of both of these masters is evident in the style and subject matter of Osman Hamdi's pictures, which mirror, in many respects, the Orientalist subjects that were so successful in Europe at the time (fig 1).4 In the 1880s, the artist embarked on a series of harem pictures, one of the most popular and alluring of these themes. The mood and inhabitants of these storied spaces, however, in Osman Hamdi's hands, were significantly and meaningfully transformed.

    In Young Woman Reading, the familiar eroticism of the harem has been tempered by the buttoned-up façade of the female figure and her compact, self-contained pose. Placed in the room like a flattened paper doll, her body becomes less seductive than decorative, and less corporeal than another colourful shape arranged against the patterned wall. This emphasis on the formal aspects of the composition, as well as the importance and intricacy of fabric and her dress, recalls the more modest harem pictures of the British painter John Frederick Lewis, whose celebrated and widely reproduced works Osman Hamdi may have known.5

    More compelling a visual comparison, however, is between Young Woman Reading and Frederic, Lord Leighton's Study (At a Reading Desk) (Sudley House, England), painted and exhibited at London's Royal Academy only three years before Osman Hamdi's picture was begun (fig 2). The child in Leighton's work, the well-known model, actress, and performer Connie Gilchrist, looks intently at the open pages of an illuminated manuscript set upon a wooden stand. The Oriental carpet and other exotic details of the décor around her, as well as her long pink and golden silken dress, add a distinctly Eastern gloss to the scene, which would have been in keeping with Leighton's Middle Eastern interests at the time. (Leighton, along with the architect George Aitchison, famously designed an "Arab Hall" for his house in South Kensington in this same year, and decorated much of the interior in an Orientalist style.) Though Osman Hamdi would not have seen this work in London, he may have known it through reproductions circulating at the time.6

    Leighton's charming picture was one of many self-proclaimed "potboilers" produced to meet a high demand. Audience's appetite for sentimental images of women and children engaged in quiet domestic pursuits had escalated exponentially in mid 19th century Britain, with no indication of slowing down. Among the most popular of these works were representations of reading, in which the child's innocence and imagination were signalled by the nature of the text they had in hand. The didactic potential of these and other tomes was also frequently addressed, particularly with regard to religion, Christian doctrine, and the church; in addition to images of children reading the Bible and reciting verses as they went, specific works of fiction were included in many compositions, that overtly promoted its beliefs.7

    Pictures of girls and women reading would also have been familiar to Osman Hamdi in his adopted home of Paris, though the subjects were markedly more risqué. In the 1870s and 1880s in particular, with changes in the workforce and the pursuit of leisure time activities on the rise, concerns about female literacy,8 access to journalism, and the corrosive influence of certain books on impressionable young girls' minds,9 compelled a spate of painted images of liseuse, or women readers, in a variety of settings and styles.10 Among the works that crowded the Salons and gallery walls were those depicting women reading poetry, perhaps the most "dangerous" of the genres. With its concern for love and drama, poetry was seen to compel a more visceral type of study than other forms of reading required or allowed: slouched in mild abandon, lips parted in recitation of the verse, the female subjects of these pictures were decidedly more sensual than moral or benign.

    In Osman Hamdi's transposition of this trend, an air of gentle provocation is maintained - though beneath a prim veneer. The young woman kneels in front of an open book placed upon an inlaid wooden stand. Her back is straight, her eyes are lowered, and her hands rest gently on her thighs. The covers of the book are protected by a delicately embroidered floral cloth, suggesting its value and the importance of its care. The book's elevated position, and the presence of a prayer rug (Turkish, seccade), implies that it is a religious text, most likely the Qur'an.10 So too, the similarity of the young woman's pose with that of other figures in Osman Hamdi's oeuvre, who are more clearly engaged in acts of pious devotion, and the sinuous arabesque of fragrant smoke emitting from an incense burner placed nearby, emphasize the religious aspects of the theme.12 As the noted scholar Edhem Eldem has observed, however, "[A] partial view of the open page says otherwise. The taliq calligraphic style displayed was not used for the Qur'an, and the few words one can decipher confirm this mismatch. On the last line, one can read 'az ān,' Persian for 'from this.' This would suggest a volume of poetry, but such a large format with only four lines of barely four or five words each [makes this] also highly improbable. In all likelihood, this is just 'decorative' scribble, meant for the artist's dominantly foreign clients. This interpretation is further strengthened by the fact that the word on the second line reads 'Hamdi,' [the artist's] name, a playful trick he often resorted to in order to insert his name in the Arabic script in paintings which he almost exclusively signed in French," (personal correspondence, 4 March 2019). The many modern references to this picture as Young Girl Reading the Qur'an, then, have been misleading, and our own preconceived perceptions must now change. Rather than an image of pious devotion, the artist engages slyly in a game.

    The meaningful disjunction that Eldem observes in Young Woman Reading, signalled by the book, is discovered elsewhere in the composition as well. Its architectural details, accessories, and exotic fabrics and objets recur regularly in his works, suggesting that the relationship between documentation and imagination is more complex than it appears. (It is important to note in this context that Osman Hamdi's paintings were rarely if ever exhibited in his native Turkey, where such inconsistencies might have been more readily observed. Indeed, in addition to overlooking the architectural pastiches that characterize even the most compelling of his works, contemporary audiences in England and Europe seem not to have noticed the regular appearance of the artist and his family members in several painted scenes).13 The striking geometric pattern of the open window's metal grates, for example, is similar to those on the right-hand side of Women Strolling (1887, Yapi Kredi Bankasi Collection) and Women at the Entrance to the Mosque of Sultan Ahmed (Erol Kerim Aksoy Collection), as well as to that in Two Musician Girls (1880, Pera Museum, fig 3), while the almost hypnotic expanse of hexagonal blue-and-white tiles, inspired by examples in local museum collections and by those observed in situ at the Topkapi Palace and the Green Mosque (Yeşil Cami) in Bursa, reappear in Four Slaves (1880, Erol Kerim Aksoy Collection), to similar dazzling effect. The woman's bright yellow dress too is a familiar presence in Osman Hamdi's works from this period, being featured in Gathering Lilacs (1881, Private Collection) and Young Woman Standing (1884, private collection). Its repetition creates an additional link between the subjects of his pictures, and alludes to an intriguing narrative thread.15

    The care with which clothing is rendered in Osman Hamdi's art is significant for reasons that extend beyond the pictures as well. Women's fashion in Constantinople had, since the 1850s, been in a state of evolution and change. French fashion magazines were widely circulated – even within the harem - and dresses were ordered directly from Paris or commissioned from seamstresses in Pera, in emulation of the styles. As elements of European fashion were selectively adopted and combined with traditional Turkish dress, a hybrid style emerged – one that did not conform to the exotic imaginings of European artists and travellers, and so was often omitted from their works.16 Osman Hamdi's numerous images of Turkish women sporting the actualities of indoor and outdoor dress, and the young woman reading here, are all the more important, then, for their honest observations of the changes that were taking place. (This is particularly apparent in Osman Hamdi's works from the 1880s and '90s, in which Turkish women's traditional tailored feraces, or outdoor cloaks, dot his canvases with newly introduced colours and zest.) Through such chronicling of sartorial realities, Osman Hamdi's pictures may be seen as both the project of a salvage ethnographer, keen to memorialize what vestiges might be left, and that of a journalist, on the frontlines of fashion and style.17

    Ironically, given Osman Hamdi's concern for topicality, as evidenced by clothing and by dress, the environments within his pictures are often timeless, motionless, and still. Based on various examples of Mamluk and early Ottoman architecture and pieced together from his extensive collections of photographs and prints, these collage-like vacuums conjure the mood of a museum, in which the viewer is a privileged and well-behaved guest. This impression is reinforced by the displays of local handicrafts and goods that exist inside their walls.18 Though also drawn from the artist's collections, or those he oversaw, the message surrounding them is clear: they are not for the acquisitive department store shopper, but for the "look-but-don't-touch," museum-going connoisseur.19

    Calm, cool, and collected, the emotionless remoteness of the figure in Young Woman Reading sends a similar message of restraint and reprimand. Her eyes are averted, her posture is stiff, and despite her lips being parted, they do not entice or tempt. Though her origins may lie in the harem pictures of Gérôme and Boulanger, and in contemporary images of female readers in Britain and in France, Osman Hamdi has transformed this woman into something very new. She is the anti-odalisque, the innocent child now matured, and the progressive Turkish liseuse. The artist's interest in this subject is gauged by her recurrence in his art, in various permutations through the years. The culmination of these images may be a painting of 1893, lost to a fire and rarely reproduced today (fig 4). Here, a young Turkish woman lays on her stomach, stretched out along a low platform or divan. She is absorbed completely by her book, which seems, given her nonchalant comportment, to be a work of literature rather than the Qur'an.20 The Islamic features of the room in which she basks, as well the clothes she wears, recall the Young Woman Reading, and evoke a similarly modern harem theme. Rather than rejecting the conventional posture of an odalisque, however, or being nearly lost against a patterned wall, the woman in this picture embraces this role with all her lithesome being. Osman Hamdi's game of translation and manipulation, begun with propriety some thirteen years before, concludes emphatically with this reader, and her active, working mind.

    1 The literature documenting and debating Osman Hamdi and his art is too vast to include here. Some of the more influential writers who have recently entered the fray are: Nisa Ari, Gülru Çakmak, Zeynep Çelik, Edhem Eldem, Emine Fetvaci, Mary Roberts, and Wendy Shaw.
    2 The majority of Osman Hamdi's paintings that were not exhibited or catalogued were not named by the artist and have been retitled by later scholars; as Edhem Eldem has noted, and as this essay later demonstrates, this has led to significant confusion and errors in the interpretation of their subject matter (see, for example, Eldem's discussion in "Making Sense of Osman Hamdi Bey and His Paintings," Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual Cultures of the Islamic World 29 [2011], pp. 339-383).
    3 Though there are no records of Osman Hamdi having been enrolled as a student of Gérôme's during his years at the École des Beaux-Arts, their later correspondence and gift exchanges make clear that a mutually influential friendship had developed (see Eldem, "Making Sense," pp. 363, 382 n.99, p. 382 n.100, and passim).
    In an obituary for the artist, written by a colleague, Osman Hamdi's unique position between Turkey and France was openly acknowledged and praised: he was, the writer observed, both "the most Parisian of Ottomans, and the most Ottoman of Parisians," (quoted in Edhem Eldem "An Ottoman Archaeologist Caught Between Two Worlds: Osman Hamdi Bey, 1842-1910," in Archaeology, Anthropology and Heritage in the Balkans and Anatolia: The Life and Times of F.W. Hasluck, 1878-1920, ed. David Shankland, vol. 1, Istanbul, 2004, pp. 121-49).
    4 Osman Hamdi also produced landscapes, portraits, and genre scenes, both during his early years in Paris and later in his career.
    5 The comparison between Lewis and Osman Hamdi was recognized by later critics, and was made explicitly in 1909; see "Burlington House. First Notice," The Academy (1 May 1909), p. 56. Osman Hamdi's own influence on British artists seems also to have been profound: Cf. The Scholar (1878, Louvre, Abu Dhabi) and Edward Burne-Jones's Portrait of Katie Lewis (1886, private collection).
    6 In the collection of Miss Augusta Smith by 1892 and exhibited again at the Royal Academy in 1897, the copyright for Leighton's picture was owned by the firm of L. H. Lefèvre & Sons (Pilgeram & Lefèvre [& Sons]) by 1906. In the spring of 1871, the renowned art dealer and publisher Ernest Gambart, known as "the Prince of the Victorian art world," had passed his firm on to his nephew Lefèvre, and a flurry of new commissions, exhibitions, and print work took place. By 1879, Lefèvre was commissioning Orientalist and Neoclassical subjects from Leighton's colleague Alma-Tadema, and engraving and etching them as well; numerous records also exist for copyrights of Leighton's works during this period. These prints were immediately and widely circulated in England, as well as in Paris, throughout Europe, and even Australia. By 1883, Lefèvre was an established presence in Vienna, exhibiting his prints at the Vienna International Exhibition of Graphic Arts. (Osman Hamdi Bey would travel to this city in 1879, one year before Young Woman Reading was painted.) The wide reach of Lefèvre and the artwork that he handled suggests that Osman Hamdi may have encountered reproductions of this painting, though this has yet to be confirmed.
    Leighton's interest in British art and culture is easily established later in his career: he was appointed a corresponding member of the Royal Academy and received an honorary doctorate – one of many during his lifetime - from Oxford University in 1909. He also visited London in this year.
    7 Among the most widely read authors within the genre of "religious fiction," whose Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) was specifically geared towards women and children, was Harriet Beecher Stowe. Works by Hesba Stretton and Charlotte Yonge were also popular in England at the time. For useful introductions to the topic of the female reader in Britain, see Kate Flint, The Woman Reader, 1837-1914, Oxford, 1993; and Martyn Lyons, "New Readers in the Nineteenth Century: Women, Children, Workers," in A History of Reading in the West, eds. Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier, Amherst, 1999, pp. 313-44.
    8 The Camille Sée law of 1880 created a public system in Paris of collèges and lycées for girls, and the following year primary education was made free for children of both sexes under the Jules Ferry law.
    9 Regarding the concerning habits of women readers, Balzac observed: "Car que lisent les femmes? Des ouvrages passionnés, les Confessions de Jean-Jacques, des romans, et toutes ces compositions qui agissent le plus puissamment sur leur sensibilité. Elles n'aiment ni la raison ni les fruits mûrs." ["For what do women read? Passionate works, the Confessions of Jean-Jacques, novels and all kinds of compositions that affect their emotions most strongly. They enjoy neither reason nor ripe fruit."] (Honoré de Balzac, Physiologie du mariage, in La Comédie humaine, ed. Pierre-Georges Castex, Paris, 1976-81, vol. II, p. 1019).
    10 For more on the subject of the liseuse, see Kathryn Brown, Women Readers in French Paintings 1870-1890: A Space for the Imagination, Aldershot, Eng. and Burlington, VT, 2012.
    11 The motif of the Oriental carpet as a meaningful referent in Osman Hamdi's paintings has gained traction in recent years; see, for example, Anna Christina Schütz, "Osman Hamdi Beys Türkische Straßenszene. Der Teppich als Verhandlungsort kultureller Identitäten im ausgehenden 19. Jahrhundert," Image 28 (July 2018), pp. 146-174.
    12 Cf. Two Young Girls Visiting a Shrine, 1890 (Mustafa Taviloglu Collection); and another similar work by the same title (private collection).
    13 The list of works that feature Osman Hamdi, or members of his family, is too long to recite here, but most famously includes Clerics before a Mosque (ca. 1890, Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, Museum of Painting and Sculpture, Istanbul), Genèse (1901, private collection), and Young Emir Reading (1905, Walker Art Gallery). For a broader and theoretical consideration of the phenomenon of self-portraiture and self-fashioning in Orientalist painting, see Emily M. Weeks, Cultures Crossed: John Frederick Lewis and the Art of Orientalism, New Haven and London, 2014.
    14 In May 1880, Osman Hamdi visited the Green Mosque (Yeşil Cami) in Bursa, famous for its wide expanses of hexagonal tiles. Similar tiles may be found in the collections of several museums opened in the late nineteenth century in Istanbul, including the Archaeological Museum, of which Osman Hamdi was the founder and first curator (see Edhem Eldem, Osman Hamdi Bey: İzlenimler, 1869-1885, Istanbul, 2016, pp. 323-337).
    15 The regular recurrence of accessories and figures in Osman Hamdi's works had its occasional drawbacks as well: In 1906, the British painter Edward Poynter wrote a letter to the artist, in which he mistook Osman Hamdi's Believer Counting His Rosary (exh. Paris Salon, 1905) for Man with Tortoises (1906, Pera Museum, Istanbul, Suna and Inan Kiraç Collection), suggesting that one picture could all too easily merge into the next (quoted in Eldem, "Making Sense," p. 370).
    Eldem has established a tripartite "grammar of Orientalism" in Osman Hamdi's art, based on the artist's practice of repetition and standardization: Osman Hamdi's pictures inevitably include a character (typically a central figure in Oriental garb), objects (artefacts that help to authenticate the scene), and a setting (an architectural structure, always in partial view, bearing a number of decorative elements and communicating a certain atmosphere) (Eldem, "Making Sense," p. 371).
    16 Years earlier, fashions had changed even more dramatically throughout the Ottoman Empire, culminating in the introduction of the Tanzimat (or period of modernizing reforms) of 1839. These brought the official end to the traditional attire of the Turkish elite, and introduced more "Western" garb. For references to the Tanzimat in the visual arts, see Emily M. Weeks, "About Face: Sir David Wilkie's Portrait of Mehemet Ali, Pasha of Egypt," in Julie Codell and Dianne Sachko Macleod, eds., Orientalism Transposed: The Impact of the Colonies on British Culture Aldershot, England and Brookfield, VT, 1998, 46–62.
    17 Clothing in Osman Hamdi's pictures functioned in more personal and political ways as well: They allude to the artist's love of costume, and dressing – often within his own paintings - for various factual and fictional roles, and the negotiation of his Franco-Turkish identity. For more on this important topic, which lies outside the scope of this essay, see Nisa Ari, "The Purchase of Modernity: The Turkish National Narrative and Osman Hamdi Bey's The Tortoise Trainer," Thresholds 43 (2015), pp. 178-87, 226-35; Gülru Çakmak, Resistance or Compliance?: The Problem of Orientalism in Osman Hamdi's Paintings," Thamyris/Intersecting 20 (2010), pp. 103-12; Eldem, "Making Sense," op.cit.; and Emine Fetvaci, "The Art of Osman Hamdi Bey," in Osman Hamdi Bey and the Americans: Archaeology, Diplomacy, Art, eds. Renata Holod and Robert Ousterhout, Istanbul, 2011, pp. 118-36. Of particular importance in Eldem's work is the problematizing of Osman Hamdi's role in Les Costumes populaires de la Turquie en 1873 (Constantinople, 1873), a book taken by scholars as evidence of the artist's political sentiments.
    18 Such accessory-filled vignettes may be a reference to Osman Hamdi's careers as a museum director and archaeologist, and indeed several of the objects are drawn from the artist's own collections or those of the institutions in which he worked. These professional appointments inspired not merely an appreciation and understanding of objects, but also commissions, subject matter, techniques - and even diplomatic acts. For more on this topic, see Holod and Ousterhout, op.cit.
    19 For a fascinating study of the objects in Osman Hamdi's works, and those that inspired them, see V. Belgin Demirsar, Osman Hamdi Tablolarinda Gerçekle ilişkiler, Ankara, 1989.
    20 This pose was adopted by male readers in Osman Hamdi's work as well, in paintings that both pre- and post-date the picture mentioned here.

    We are grateful to Emily M. Weeks, Ph.D for preparing the above essay.

    We are grateful to Edhem Eldem, Ph.D for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.
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Osman Hamdi Bey (Turkish, 1842-1910) Young Woman Reading
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