İstanbul: The City of Dreams

Views of İstanbul and Daily Life in the Ottoman world from the 17th to 20th century with selected works from the Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation Collection

The Conversation (First half of the 18th Century) by The Vanmour SchoolPera Museum

Daily Life of the Interior

A significant majority of the genre scenes from the City is comprised of domestic life and the women who shape the home interior. Women often constituted one of the fundamental themes of Orientalist painting. The infatuation with accessing the harem, namely the private living space of the Eastern woman, was almost tantamount to penetrating the mysteries of the East. The failure to see this intimate domain at their will naturally caused hundreds of Western men, including travellers, writers, painters, and poets, to fantasize about the Eastern woman and to conjure up glimpses of an imaginary life. Since Western artists could not freely access the Muslim household, they often selected their models from non-Muslim families for their paintings of the household interior where women were present. Jean-Baptiste Vanmour of Valenciennes stands out as an exception in this respect. His extended sojourn in the East provided Vanmour with access to areas that were prohibited to other Europeans. Vanmour’s genre scenes of the domestic interior, particularly the ones depicting the Turkish woman, were widely favored by enthusiastic admirers. Consequently, similar compositions were repeatedly produced in the artist’s studio in İstanbul. As the paintings centered on the domestic interior reveal, fortune-telling from coffee cups, smoking tobacco pipes, spinning yarn, embroidering, hosting –mostly overnight– guests, and frequenting the hamam were important pastimes in the daily life of Ottoman women. The harem women also enjoyed musical or theatrical entertainment. Practicing music was not confined to the women of the Palace; it was also a widespread pursuit in the palaces, mansions and seaside residences of state officials and Court circles. 

The Tortoise Trainer (1906) by Osman Hamdi BeyPera Museum

We see a male figure in oriental attire, pensively watching the tortoises eating the greenery on the floor.The figure is modeled after Osman Hamdi himself and the instruments he carries might suggest that he is a dervish.

Two Musician Girls (Second half of the 19th Century) by Osman Hamdi BeyPera Museum

Osman Hamdi Bey’s perception of the East is remarkably different than his Western counterpart. In his paintings the female figures are often conscious of their individual identities and talents.

Phanariot Greek Ladies (Mid-19th Century) by Daniel Valentine RivièrePera Museum

The figures are surrounded by various objects of Ottoman domestic life. The habit of drinking coffee and smoking chibouk, which were important elements of harem life stand out in the painting.

A Scene from the Turkish Harem (Second half of the 17th Century) by Franz Hermann, Hans Gemminger, Valentin MuellerPera Museum

The 1654 inscription over the painting reads, “As it is not customary for distinguished Turkish ladies to leave the house or meet strangers, they invite each other to their homes and amuse themselves with dance, comedy and similar forms of entertainment”.

Marines of the Ottoman Navy (First half of the 18th Century) by The Vanmour SchoolPera Museum

This painting is one of the four works of the Vanmour Studio series depicting a genre scene in Ottoman home interior.

Women Drinking Coffee (First half of the 18th Century) by Jean-Baptiste VanmourPera Museum

In this painting, which depicts the “coffee service”, one of the integral rituals of harem life, the lush garments, headpieces and jewelry reflect women’s fashion in the Tulip Age. The decoration of the room resembles Vanmour’s other harem paintings.

The Day after the Wedding: the Feast of Trotters (Paça Günü) (1740/1770) by Unknown painterPera Museum

The subject of this picture is the Feast of Trotters, which according to Ottoman custom was held the day after the wedding. The presence of the bride at the centre of the composition has been underlined by means of the red cloth in front of her.

The Scribe (Late 19th Century) by Julius StarckPera Museum

Life and the City

Apart from the picturesque or panoramic views, İstanbul also presented intriguing scenes of daily life to foreign artists visiting the Ottoman capital. From the 18th century onwards, genre scenes began to emerge in the works of Western painters and gained further significance through the Orientalists of the 19th century. Venues reflecting the exotic Eastern atmosphere and Ottomans dressed in their original attires stood out as priceless subjects for the Orientalist painters who sought to immortalize the mystifying life of the East on their canvasses. Public areas such as coffee houses, courtyards of mosques, fountains, promenades, and bazaars were ideal sites to observe urban life. In this respect, women were the central focus in the genre scenes of Orientalist painters. As they were forbidden to observe Turkish women in the household, these artists found the opportunity to comfortably study and depict women as they were traveling on koçu carts or aboard the caiques, relaxing at excursion sites, or shopping at the bazaars. İstanbul’s distinctive geographical location also offered artists the prospect of juxtaposing life at sea against the city’s skyline defined by Ottoman architecture. The works of Western artists reflecting İstanbul life assumed their places in books illustrated with engravings that were published in Europe, enabling a number of local and foreign painters to produce oil copies of these engravings.

The Grand Bazaar (Second half of the 19th Century) by Amadeo PreziosiPera Museum

Preziosi often presented genre scenes from İstanbul in his unique style. This venue, particular to İstanbul, has been of great interest to Western artists, and in Edmondo de Amicis’s words “is not just a building but a town”.

The Silk Bazaar (Second half of the 19th Century - Late 19th Century) by Amadeo PreziosiPera Museum

Preziosi often depicted the figures he used in their natural setting, as part of cross-sections from the daily life. In order to reveal the essence of each scene in explicit detail, the poses and expressions of his figures are at times exaggerated to the point of caricature.

A Coffee House in Tophane (Late 19th Century) by Megerdich Jivanian (from Thomas Allom)Pera Museum

An important visual resource on Istanbul, this painting is an oil copy of the composition by Jivanian. Various copies by unknown painters of the same composition exist in a number of private collections in Turkey.

A Jereed Game in Kağıthane (1890/1891) by Luigi Acquarone (after Antoine Ignace Melling)Pera Museum

The jereed game played on horses takes place between the pages of Selim III at one of the favorite excursion spots in İstanbul, Kağıthane. This is painting by Acquarone who was one of the court artists of Sultan Abdülhamid II.

The "Koçu" Cart (Second half of the 19th Century) by Achille Befani FormisPera Museum

Formis portrays the koçu cart pulled by two oxen, one of Istanbul’s popular means of transportation. This exotic cart, ornate with bells and tassels hanging from two back-stretching springs, was rather preferred by the female members of affluent families in the 19th century.

The Street (Second half of the 19th Century) by Germain Fabius BrestPera Museum

Most of the Brest's Istanbul paintings are “capriccios”, rather than depictions of reality. As manifested in this painting, in the works he completed upon his return to his country, based on the sketches and designs he made during his stay in İstanbul, Brest successfully created an İstanbul atmosphere.

The Daughter of the English Ambassador Riding in a Palanquin (Late 19th Century) by Fausto ZonaroPera Museum

Commissioned by British Ambassador Sir Philip W. Currie, this painting is depicting Currie's stepdaughter on the palanquin on her way to the church to marry to a diplomat.

Amusement on the Caique (Late 19th Century - Early 20th Century) by Fausto ZonaroPera Museum

Here, Zonaro reveals a brief instant from Istanbul life of the period. Zonaro’s Impressionist technique, which is manifested in his rapid brushstrokes and use of vivid colors, is also a dominant feature of this work.

Excursion on the Golden Horn (1888) by Tristram James EllisPera Museum

A lady and her young companion are being rowed along the Golden Horn. The lady is wearing a blue ferace, 'yaşmak' (veil) and holding an umbrella. The younger of the two oarsmen is looking directly at the viewer

Yeni Camii and The Port of İstanbul (Late 18th Century) by Jean-Baptiste HilairPera Museum

Despite the fact that the painting is the depiction of a particular event, the view of the Port before the city silhouette defined by monumental buildings, as well as the routine of daily life also come to the fore.

Fishermen Bringing in the Catch (Late 19th Century - Early 20th Century) by Fausto ZonaroPera Museum

Zonaro created a number of paintings depicting the life in İstanbul with rapid brushstrokes and vivid colors. In this work, which reveals the Impressionist technique particularly evident in his landscapes, he presents one of the intriguing aspects of life in İstanbul.

Panorama of İstanbul (Late 18th Century) by Antoine de FavrayPera Museum

Views of İstanbul

Views of İstanbul depicted in the 15th and 16th centuries were often schematic drawings that excluded figures; for the most part, they appeared in sea atlases, history and geography books. The city panoramas produced after the 17th century, on the other hand, ceased to be mere drawings of cartographers or architects, but evolved into landscapes that conveyed the topography and natural setting of the city with utmost sensitivity. During the 18th century, in which the city increasingly expanded towards the Bosphorus, the scenes that offered a view only from the north were replaced by wider cityscapes that stretched towards the shores of Üsküdar and the Bosphorus. The most commonly preferred spot for drawing İstanbul panoramas was the slopes of Galata and European embassies located in this area. Yet, after the 18th century, Bulgurlu Hill on the slopes Üsküdar emerged as another vantage point. These two angles provided the artists with the widest view of İstanbul, both towards the Golden Horn and in the direction of the Bosphorus.  


The rapid development of commercial, diplomatic, and cultural ties between the Europeans and the Ottomans in the 18th century brought embassy delegations, merchants and travellers to the Ottoman lands. İstanbul was thus portrayed in all its vivacity in the brushstrokes of artists who accompanied these travelers on their visits to the city.


In lieu of the İstanbul panoramas of the previous century, the Orientalist painters of the 19th century, on the other hand, depicted fragments of the mesmerizing Eastern life in their paintings, which conveyed the picturesque nature and distinctive architecture of the city. All these paintings reveal the unique history, unrivalled nature, remarkable texture, as well as the outstanding monuments, ways of life and traditions of İstanbul, a magnificent city that was crowned as the capital of great empires. 

Panorama of Sarayburnu (1787/1827) by Louis-François CassasPera Museum

While the artist often includes figures and details from daily life in his landscapes, in this particular work, he also reveals the commotion at sea through a depiction of sailboats, commercial boats, and imperial caiques with kiosks (stern pavilions) in front of Haliç and Sarayburnu.

View of İstanbul (second half of the 19th century) by Félix (François-Georges-Philibert) ZiemPera Museum

Rather than presenting a realistic depiction of the city, this particular İstanbul painting of Ziem also reveals the picturesque aspect of life at sea against the backdrop of the city’s silhouette.

View of İstanbul (second half of the 19th century) by Félix (François-Georges-Philibert) ZiemPera Museum

Portraying a quiet village at the shores of the Bosphorus and the boats on the sea, the painting is dominated by the golden color of sunset. Ziem is deemed a particularly successful artist in terms of capturing the reflections of sunlight on the water.

Caiques and Sailboats at the Bosphorus (Second half of the 19th Century) by Félix ZiemPera Museum

In this painting, İstanbul is represented through a few mosque silhouettes in the background. Nonetheless, as in Ziem's Venetian scenes, the painting emphasizes the picturesque union of the city, the sea and human figures, which have been reduced to mere color stains.

The Ahırkapı Lighthouse (1906/1907) by Michael Zeno DiemerPera Museum

The work presents a view of the city from the sea. In this respect, it complements other paintings featured in the exhibition by various artists, which portray Sarayburnu and the entrance to the Bosphorus.

Credits: Story

Consultants: Prof. Dr. Günsel Renda and Prof. Dr. Zeynep İnankur
Exhibition Coordinator: Barış Kıbrıs
Digital Adaptation: Irmak Wöber

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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