Blog 25 28/01/2016 Osman Hamdi Bey: Turkish Painter and Archaeologist of the late Ottoman Empire.

Posted in on 28 January, 2016 in News

 Osman Hamdi Bey

Turkish Painter and Archaeologist of the late Ottoman Empire.

Osman H B Photo 1

Os H B. tortoises

Tortoises depicting the use of candles for illimination

In 2004, “The Tortoise Trainer” (1906), an enigmatic work by the painter, Osman Hamdi Bey, was purchased by The Pera Museum in Istanbul for an astounding US$3.5 million dollars in 2004, the highest price ever paid for a Turkish painting. It depicts the fashion for tortoises being used for illumination and decorative purposes by placing candles on the shell in the evenings during the Tulip Era of the 18th century. Although the museum houses a considerable collection of the artist’s work, some of them among the most famous of all Orientalist paintings, “The Tortoise Trainer” is the cornerstone of the collection.

Osman Hamdi Bey The Tortoise trainer

Osman Hamdi Bey “The Tortoise Trainer” 1906


Ibrahim Edhem Pasa

Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910) was the son of İbrahim Edhem Paşa, originally a Greek who was orphaned as a boy on the Greek island of Chios after the uprising of 1821. Ibrahim, born in 1919, was adopted by Kapitan-Admiral Husrev Paşa and eventually rose to one of the highest ranks of the Ottoman ruling class – the Grand Vizier. With such an esteemed family, Osman Hamdi grew up in a privileged environment. After studying law in Istanbul, he went to Paris to continue his studies. However, he dropped law to pursue his love of painting and studied under two of the most influential  Orientalist painters of the day – Jean-Jean Gerome and Gustave Boulanger. This period coincided with great changes in the Empire and the first ever visit to Paris by an Ottoman Sultan – Abdülaziz. On his return to Istanbul, Osman Hamdi, now a diplomat, was sent to Baghdad – then a province of the Ottoman Empire – as part of the administrative team of Midhat Paşa, a liberalist who would later help draft the first Ottoman constitution. During the 1870’s he returned to Istanbul and continued working in the upper echelons of Ottoman society.  In 1881, he instituted and became director of the Academy of Fine Arts, the first school to provide Ottomans with a real training in techniques and aesthetics. A fervent Nationalist, he used his position for his other great love – archaeology – implementing  and overseeing new regulations which prohibited historical artifacts from being smuggled out of the empire, which at that time, included a large part of Greece and Mesopotamia. He also headed a team of archaeologists and conducted the first scientific digs done by a Turkish team. The digs mainly centred on Nemrut Dağı (Mount Nimrod) in Anatolia – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the Hekate Sanctuary in Lagina (S.W. Anatolia) and Sidon in Lebanon.

mount nemrut dagi 1

Mount Nemrut Dagi

The coveting of artifacts from archaeological sites has a long history reaching back to the Pharaohs and beyond but during the Ottoman Empire, it was standard practice to divide the artifacts with the Ottoman authorities or obtain a bill of sale. Osman Hamdi understood the value of artifacts to Ottoman heritage and with his appointment as Director of The Imperial Ottoman Museum in 1881 – which he set up – everything changed. This was not an easy thing to do; old habits die hard and foreign archaeologists continued to play cat and mouse with him often appealing to his artistic endeavours by buying his paintings, which he exhibited in Europe and America, in order to obtain permits. Hamdi Bey used this to his advantage and it remains to his credit that much of what rightfully belonged to the Ottoman territories remained there.

Os H B woman with lilac

Woman Gathering Lilac

Os H B. Woman with her maid

Combing the Hair

Throughout his life, Osman Hamdi Bey continued to paint in the style of his teachers, Gerome and Boulanger. His works give us a rare glimpse into his own culture observed from within rather than through the eyes of a Westerner. His style has a realistic approach and range from domestic scenes of daily life to architecture, including archaeology. Depictions of his women, often featuring his wife (he was married twice and both women were French) are among the most accurate in portraying Ottoman dress at the time. Many of his domestic scenes, such as the women reaching up towards the vases and flowers, were composed by camera before he started to paint. He liked to think of himself as an intellectual and often featured himself in his work, usually as a contemplative Dervish as in “The Tortoise Trainer”. He remains the first and only true Orientalist of the Ottoman Empire.

Two musicians

Two Musicians

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