1650 - 1910

Portraits from the Empire

Pera Museum

Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation Collection

Throughout the ages, the Orient has attracted the interest of the West.  European intellectuals and artists have been mesmerized by this presumably mysterious and relatively closed world.  As a natural consequence, during various periods many artists, either by travelling to the East or by working from secondary sources, sought to discover the essence of the Orient, and depicted in their works either the real Orient or their own visions of it.

The movement known as Orientalism in European art, which appeared in conjunction with the Romanticist movement of the 19th century, focused primarily in the lands belonging to the Ottoman Empire at the time. Even long before the rise of Orientalism in European art, many European artists were fascinated by their first glimpses of the East and by the Turquerie fashion which was the result of new relations with the Ottoman world. For nearly two hundred years, starting from the 18th century, a number of painters, some of whom became known as the Bosphorus Painters, worked intensively in the lands of the Empire and depicted the Ottoman world in its various aspects, consequently engraving those images in mankind's collective visual memory.

The exhibition Portraits from the Empire sheds light on the many facets of this memory.

Sultans and Portraits

The Ottoman Sultan and His Haseki

The Ottomans played a prominent role in the power balance of Europe from the 15th century onwards, as their territories in the Mediterranean region and Europe expanded, leading to increasing European interest in Turkey and the Turks, an interest focused above all on the structure of the Ottoman state. In the 18th century in particular, growing political and trade relations brought not only diplomats, merchants and travellers to the Ottoman capital, but also artists, many of whom were employed in diplomatic circles. Under their influence Western style portraiture began to gain ground in Ottoman court circles.

There had been a tradition of painting portraits of the Ottoman sultans in the miniature technique since the 16th century. From the reign of Selim III onwards many local artists made portraits using western techniques, and Selim's nephew Mahmud II had his own portraits painted in oil, depicting him in the new western style dress that he had introduced, and had these hung in government offices.

Sultan Mahmud II
Sultan Selim III
Prince Abdürrahim Efendi

Ambassadors and Painters

One of the subjects most commonly painted by those European artists employed in diplomatic circles was audience ceremonies at the Ottoman court. According to traditional Ottoman protocol these ceremonies always took place on the day when the janissaries were paid their quarterly salaries. The ambassador and his retinue would ride to the palace in the morning and enter accompanied by their janissary escort. When they had passed through the Bâb-ı Hümâyûn (the outer-most gate of the Palace) and crossed the first court and arrived at the Bâbü’s-selam (the Gate of Salutation), they would dismount from their horses and ungird their swords before entering. Here they would watch the distribution of food to the janissaries, an occasion known as çanak yağması (the sacking of the bowls).

Then the delegation would be admitted to a chamber next to the Dîvân-ı Hümâyûn (Council Champer), where a banquet was prepared, the grand vizier acting as host. When the meal was over, they would watch the session of the Dîvân, and then the ambassador would be garbed in a ceremonial caftan known as hilat. Carrying their gifts, the ambassador and his companions would pass through the Bâbü’s-saade (the Gate of Felicity) into the third court, where the Throne Room was situated. After courtesies had been exchanged the ambassador would give his credentials to the interpreter to be passed from hand to hand among the Ottoman officials and finally be laid beside the sultan on his throne by the grand vizier. The grand vizier would answer the ambassador on behalf of the sultan, and the ceremony would draw to an end.

Portraying Ottoman Society

European artists who came to Istanbul as members of diplomatic entourages depicted scenes from different parts of the Ottoman capital, distinctive costumes worn by the different classes of people in the empire, and portraits of foreign ambassadors, interpreters, and increasingly of Ottoman dignitaries. Portraying Ottoman Society. 

European artists who came to Istanbul as members of diplomatic entourages depicted scenes from different parts of the Ottoman capital, distinctive costumes worn by the different classes of people in the empire, and portraits of foreign ambassadors, interpreters, and increasingly of Ottoman dignitaries.

A Portrait of Thomas Hope in Turkish Costume
Mahmud Celaleddin Paşa
The Tortoise Trainer

One of the most notable of the European artists who worked in Istanbul in the 18th century was a knight of Malta Antoine de Favray, who arrived in Istanbul in 1762 and was employed by the French ambassadors Comte de Vergennes and Comte de St. Priest until 1771. 

His portraits of Vergennes and his wife show the couple not only dressed in Turkish costume but even seated in oriental style.

The World of Women and the “Harem” as seen by Western Painters

In Orientalist iconography women hold an important place. To a large extent this is related to the fantasy of the 'harem', which is one of the fundamental elements shaping both Orientalist literature and painting. In Muslim countries the Arabic word 'harem', meaning a sacred place forbidden to enter, refers to the part of palaces and houses belonging to the women of the family. This concept of privacy and the sense of mystery it generated made the harem a fascinating aspect of eastern life in the eyes of westerners.

Although Orientalist painters based their pictures of the harem mainly on written sources, they sometimes also used non-Muslim models or called on their powers of imagination. The imagined eroticism of life behind those closed doors, as much as the idea of its inaccessibility to the outside world, was what spurred interest in the harem. European men envisaged eastern women as sultanas or concubines living in a timeless world with nothing to do but prepare themselves for their masters. In contrast, accounts and pictures by European women invited to visit Ottoman harems present a different world. Their harems mainly portray dignified and respectable home environments. However, it was writings and portrayals by men that dominated Orientalist discourse.

Ottoman Women and Daily Life

For most Ottoman women, whose daily recreational pursuits were largely confined to conversation, embroidery, drinking coffee and smoking pipes, receiving guests and holding musical gatherings were occasions that added colour to their lives. Singing and playing music was one of the most popular pursuits of women at the palace and the upper echelons of society.

Ottoman women had limited opportunities for activities outside the home. The upper-class woman rarely went shopping, most of their needs being met by servants or peddler women. Wedding celebrations and feasts, visits to holy tombs and sufi lodges, and friends and relatives, social gatherings known as 'helva nights', Mevlit ceremonies, weekly visits to the public baths, and above all picnics and country excursions in spring and summer were some of the events that took women out of their homes.

The most popular excursion places were Kağıthane on the Golden Horn and Göksu and Küçüksu on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus. Pleasing scenes of women in gauzy yashmaks and colourful outer robes promenading in their carriages, strolling in meadows, or being rowed along in graceful caiques, lacy sunshades in hand, were a favourite topic for western painters.

The Day after the Wedding: The Feast of Trotters
Excursion on the Golden Horn
Amusement at Göksu

Women, Costumes, Portraits

Portraits focusing on women's costume form an important category of paintings by western artists. Although the artists did not have the opportunity to observe Ottoman women first-hand, they could see women's clothing for themselves, and many of them purchased Ottoman garments to take back home with them and used these as studio accessories. Consequently we find many 18th and 19th century paintings of European models or even entirely imaginary women dressed in Ottoman costume.

However, women of the Ottoman court and those of the upper classes were keen to have their portraits painted, and western women painters such as Henriette Brown and Mary Walker were in popular demand. However, when these portraits showing them dressed in European clothing of the latest fashion were completed, they were not hung in full view, but concealed in cupboards or by a curtain so that the male servants of the household should not see them.

Credits: Story

Exhibition consultants — Prof. Dr. Günsel Renda, Prof. Dr. Zeynep İnankur
Exhibition coordinators — Begüm Akkoyunlu, Barış Kıbrıs
Exhibition organizer — Samih Rifat
Digital adaptation — Bihter Ayla Serttürk

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions (listed below) who have supplied the content.
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