Reading Between the Lines- Parisian painter, Ottoman archaeologist: Osman Hamdi Bey was a polymath whose art brought together East and West, says Barnaby Rogerson
Osman Hamdi Bey (Turkish, 1842-1910) Young Woman Reading

Thank God for Osman Hamdi Bey. In his life and work, his faith and politics, his sense of humour and his paintings, this artist is a happy corrective to the vast accumulation of occidental self-hatred that has piled up around Orientalist art. Without oversimplifying, there has been a wholesale acceptance of Edward Said's provocative suggestion (in his 1978 book Orientalism) that titillating romanticised images of the Middle East served to belittle the societies they depicted, so serving as justification for colonial invasion and imperial penetration. In short, anyone who is not a native who writes or paints about the Middle East is either a Western spy or an ethnopornographer. Probably both.

In Osman Hamdi Bey, we find a native painter celebrating the same cultural artefacts as beguiled the so-called Orientalists. In his works, he was not throwing together random picturesque objects, but composing a loving tribute to his homeland, which had for centuries created the dazzling ceramics, textiles, buildings, carpets, gardens and texts that his paintings assembled. Nor are the women he depicted bought by the hour from the red-light district. He chose to paint members of his own family, women who come across as assured, confident, literate, composed, elegant and beloved.

In Young Woman Reading, offered in Bonhams' 19th Century Paintings sale in London, the book that lies open, respectfully wrapped in a linen cloth embroidered in silk, is written in Persian in Arabic script. It is definitely not the Koran; rather, the scale and shape of the calligraphy suggest it could be a collection of poetic couplets. We know that scrapbooks of different styles of calligraphy were treasured items in any literate household, and might include verses that described the attributes of the Prophet or the Ninety-Nine Names of God. Osman has placed his reader in an institutional environment. It is emphatically not a domestic interior. The dazzling spread of hexagonal tiles, the complex brazen geometric screen,the marble window-frame, the view across cypress trees immediately suggest an Islamic library attached to an imperial tomb within a mosque complex, such as the cluster of foundations that stand in the shadow of the Ayia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in the centre of Istanbul. But this is no casual visit. An incense burner has been lit, an ornate inlaid book-stand (mother of pearl panels set into ivory on an ebony frame) has been set up and a carpet has been spread. We are in the presence of someone important, with privileged access to the inner courtyards of Ottoman culture. Yet it is also intimate, for this is an Ottoman woman who has taken off her outer coat and the wafer-thin white veils that would have been worn on all public occasions. We see her in an immaculately tailored kaftan, which plays with the Ottoman love affair with different forms of muted yellow: old gold on white set against stripes of cooked quince/weld yellow, with those typically wide, ornate sleeves. You will need to look to the works of Jean-Étienne Liotard and Fausto Zonaro to find the same fine eye for the detail of Ottoman tailoring married to respect for the female form.

If her dress marks her out as one of the Ottoman elite, her literacy is no longer such an indication. The mandatory elementary education act of 1869 was already eight years old and had produced a vast demand for female teachers in the major cities of the Ottoman Empire. But Young Woman Reading has nothing of the school room about it. It is marked by the silence and leisure of a planned visit to a library, with something of a private ritual about it.

Osman Hamdi Bey was born in 1842, one of the sons of Ibrahim Edhem Pasha (1819-1893). His father rose to the very summit of Ottoman society, serving as Ambassadorto Berlin and Vienna, Grand Vizier in 1877, and Minister of the Interior from 1883 to 1885. Pasha's life reads like the unlikely plot of a Shakespeare play. Born Greek, he was taken captive as a boy and sold as a slave in Istanbul, having been spared during the massacre of Chios in 1822. He was rescued by a childless Ottoman admiral, Hüsrev Pasha, who bought a number of boys at the slave market, freeing them and educating them. It is claimed that 80 Ottoman officials and officers, all his adopted sons, said their prayers over the admiral's grave. Ibrahim Edhem was clever enough to be one of the scholars selected to be sent to Paris in 1831. He studied medicine (becoming a friend of Louis Pasteur) before switching to the École des Mines, after which he returned to Turkey to work.

Above: Osman Hamdi Bey, Two Musician Girls (1880), in the collection of the Pera Museum, Istanbul

Osman himself was following a family tradition when he graduated from his law studies in Istanbul, aged 18, and finished his education in Paris. He spent nine years there, gradually shedding the law in order to study at the private art schools of Jean-Léon Gérôme and Gustave Boulanger. There is no documentary confirmation of an enrolment, but Gérôme was in his heyday in this period, producing vast canvases drawn from French history, the Classics and the Orient, as well as experimenting with sculptures in coloured marbles, metals and inlays. He had already travelled several times to the Middle East, was a friend of Empress Eugénie and, having married the daughter of an art-dealer, ran a grand house in rue de Bruxelles where he taught drawing, painting and sculpture. His influence was vast. It is estimated that 2,000 students passed through his studio, and his house was known to be the most riotous, but also artistically the most rigorous. Osman fell in love with Marie, a fellow student, whom he married (with his father's permission) and returned to Istanbul in 1869. Two years before this, he had succeeded in getting three of his canvases into a Paris exhibition: Black Sea Soldier, Repose of the Gypsies and Death of the Soldier.

But the carefree days as an art student were over. Osman joined the staff of Midhat Pasha (1822-1883), who had been sent into a form of internal exile, as governor of distant southern Iraq. Midhat Pasha was an exceptional man, the Istanbul-born son of a Muslim cleric. Dedicated to good governance and internal reform, his three years in Baghdad were a uniquely positive period, during which the province was transformed by new roads, bridges, schools and hospitals. It was a dazzling illustration of what could be done by one man with energy, working within the traditions of Islamic charity. There is a souvenir of Osman's time in Baghdad: The Mosque dates to 1869.

Above: Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910)

By 1871, Osman was back in Istanbul working in the protocol department of the Sultan's Palace. Ten years later, the death of the first director of the fledgling national archaeological collection (the German scholar Dr Philipp Anton Dethier) left a vacancy. Osman was selected for the post. Alexander Vallaumy (a student friend from Paris, who was also the Istanbul-born son of a pastry chef) was promptly commissioned by Osman to build the handsome Archaeological Museum, which still stands in the lower gardens of the Topkapi Palace. It was a good site that acknowledged the centuries-old role of the palace as both store house of treasures and teaching school. Two years later, Hamdi Bey established the first Ottoman Academy of Fine Arts. It stood directly opposite the new museum (the better to make use of its artistic treasures) in the building that now houses the artefacts of the Museum of the Ancient East. Osman knew exactly what was needed. A staff of eight lecturers selected just 20 students a year, using a foundation year to establish their future specialisations: painting, sculpture or engraving. This Academy is now a free-standing university – the Mimar Sinan – which overlooks the Bosphorus.

Hamdi Bey also drew up the first law against smuggling antiquities out of the Ottoman Empire, and personally directed pioneering excavations, among them the discovery of the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus in Sidon, Lebanon, in 1887. The carvings of Greeks and Persians, and Greeks in Persian dress, some of them still bearing their original colours, on the tomb are one of the wonders of the world. Like Young Woman Reading, which had been finished in 1880, it could confidently exist in two separate cultures without betraying either.

Barnaby Rogerson has written extensively on Islamic culture, including The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography (2003).

Sale: 19th Century Painting
Thursday 26 September at 2pm
Enquiries: Charles O'Brien +44 (0) 20 7468 8360
[email protected]


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