“After countless, unsuccessful attempts, I will finally get this blend of colours that creates that bedazzling atmosphere onto my palette.”
This was the observation of the realist painter Fausto Zonaro as he cast his eyes over the glittering vistas of 19th-century Constantinople. Several works in The Orientalist Sale this spring highlight how the Italian was just one of numerous European expat artists to be seduced by the Turkish metropolis.
Constantinople – Istanbul as it became known to Westerners in the early 20th century – inspired a holistic view in these artists, “drawing or painting either sweeping panoramas of the harbour and skyline, or more specific sites and landmarks that captured their imagination,” explains Claude Piening, head of 19th Century European Paintings at Sotheby’s.
Zonaro turned to his diary, and the easel, to render the city’s spectacle. “I could not even begin to describe, with my untrained pen, the entry into the port of Istanbul,” he remarked. “I will perform this duty not with a pen but with brushes.” In his painting On the Galata Bridge, Constantinople, those brushes deliver a lively composition of hawkers and walkers, traders and strollers, all milling about on the titular thoroughfare over the Golden Horn. This fluid scene, noted the artist, was “like a cinema with an ever-lasting film”.
The city cast a spell on Zonaro, who had come from poor Venetian stock. He lived in its embrace for nearly two decades, becoming a prominent figure in Constantinople cultural circles at the turn of the century and, for a time, a court painter to Sultan Abdulhamid II. It provided an ever-changing canvas: he painted it in snow and summer, its fishermen and its nobles, its dramatic historical events and contemporary corners.
Other artists sought out epic prospects and architectural details. Théodore Gudin, the French marine artist, panned out for his glittering view of the Golden Horn’s waterline – with its thicket of masts, sails, rigging and gulls – while at the north-eastern entrance of the Hagia Sophia, the British artist James Webb brought his Turner-influenced eye to the stone intricacies of the St Sophia Gate.
These paintings – while individual in their interests – all feature the landmark punctuations of Constantinople’s dramatic skyline: the pale minarets reaching upwards, the majestic domes of the mosques, the solidity of the Topkapi Palace. This animated line is given a broader perspective in a widescreen seascape by the turn-of-the-century German painter Michael Zeno Diemer. In his image, viewed from the waters off Seraglio Point, the city is depicted as a thin sandy line of humanity caught between vast expanses of green waves and white clouds.
However, some painters were transfixed by the city’s 16th century interiors. In Paul Leroy’s pair of oils, The Rüstem Pasha Mosque in Constantinople, the French painter captures figures framed by walls of cool cobalt and turquoise Iznik tiles. These rooms are oases of stillness within the bustling city. As Piening reflects: “Suddenly you find yourself in a calmer space, echoed by the muted, more even light in contrast to the bright Mediterranean light.”
An uncommon room can be seen in Henriette Browne’s A Visit: A Harem Interior. Browne was the pseudonym of Sophie de Saux, wife of a French diplomat and one of the few female Orientalist painters. Passing through Constantinople in 1860 she gained access to a harem, something that was forbidden to her male counterparts. The result was this rare depiction of a harem, not as heady den of florid textiles, sexualized poses and nudity but rather a collegiate atmosphere of subdued colours and modestly-presented womanhood.
And this shimmering city continues to enthral. The novelist Orhan Pamuk is one of its present-day flaneurs. In his youth, the future Nobel laureate dreamt of becoming a painter; today he takes a camera on his walks around the hills of modern day Istanbul. They offer the kind of panoramas, he observes, that had once been “enjoyed from foreign embassies in Ottoman times.”
Or indeed by Fausto Zonaro and his fellow 19th century painters. “I concur with Zonaro,” states Piening. “It’s literally bedazzling when you see the sun rise or go down over the rippling waters of the Bosphorus.”