A s the first Turkish artist to depict his homeland within the European academic style of painting, Osman Hamdy Bey, more than any other Orientalist painter, personifies the bridge between Islamic and European culture. Born in Istanbul, Hamdy Bey received his artistic training in Paris during the 1860’s under the tutelage of Gustave Boulanger. The son of the Grand Vizier Edhem Pasha, Osman Hamdy Bey lived a productive and artistically prolific life; he was a ‘renaissance man’ and a leading figure in Turkish cultural life of the time.
His biography reads rather like a polymath: an Ottoman administrator, an intellectual, a brilliant poet, a prominent painter and through his work in setting up the Istanbul Archaeology Museums, a patron of the arts. His legacy still resonates today so much so that the strict laws drafted by Hamdy Bey, governing the export of antiquities and preventing their smuggling abroad, are still strongly adhered to in modern Turkey.
Koranic Instruction, painted in 1890, and a highlight of the Najd Collection, depicts a secluded corner of the beautiful Yesil Cami or Green Mosque at Bursa in Western Anatolia, a setting which provided the backdrop for many of the artists paintings from this period. Framed by a Mamluk lantern and monumental Mamluk candlestick, two men face one another, the seated pupil receiving Koranic instruction from the standing hoja or teacher.
While at first glance Koranic Instruction bears many of the hallmarks of a French academic painting, it was a radical work for its time that challenged artistic and social norms. For a start, figurative painting was virtually unpractised by Muslim artists at the time.
Hamdy Bey, a cosmopolitan and well-travelled man, saw his paintings as vehicles for social commentary. At some times light-heartedly and at others provocatively, he often criticised conservative tendencies in his homeland. For example, the present work contains several subtle details that challenge the noble occupation of Koranic instruction. The preaching imam remarkably still wears his slippers despite the need to remain barefoot inside a mosque. His pupil, his slippers casually discarded in the niche beneath the alcove, appears on the verge of falling asleep. The painting is a manifestation of ideological and societal tension that not only offers European viewers an insight into Ottoman life but also promulgates a new and radical form of visual expression at home.
Hamdy Bey’s paintings often provoke a number of speculative interpretations and meanings according to Edhem Eldem, the leading authority on the artist today. Whilst such interpretations have been widely cross-examined, it should not be overlooked that Hamdy Bey practically never exhibited his work in his own country as he painted almost exclusively for a Western audience. Given the supposed subversions of the culture and tradition of the Ottoman world in his pictures, we have to question whether the artist truly believed they would have been picked up by a Western viewer. Whilst the likes of Jean-Léon Gérôme and the other leading European artists sought to create an exotic, dramatic and sometimes violent representation of the near-east, Hamdy Bey represented the Orient in a more accurate, dignified and respectful way which would have appealed to a Western audience. As Eldem observes, for a man who had spent eight years in Paris, was married twice to French women, spoke and wrote French more readily than Turkish with his family and colleagues, Orientalism had most probably become a way of life. His Orientalist works are aesthetic constructions designed to attract the attention of a Western public by combining clichés intelligently with the privilege of being an “insider within the outside.”
Hamdy Bey’s work as an architect and museum curator and the links this has with his paintings should also be considered. The objects that appear in his works tend to date to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and are mostly Mamluk or Ottoman in origin. At this particular time in Turkish history, there was an interest in the national and dynastic origins of the Ottoman Empire whilst the Tanzimat reforms were taking place. The origins of such a society could be found in the aesthetic properties of the fifteenth-century monuments, which synthesized a variety of architectural traditions. In addition to the intellectual interest towards the origins of the Ottoman Empire, the objects in Hamdy Bey’s paintings might have been inspired by his new position as director of the Imperial Museum of Antiquities. He expanded the collections of the museum to a level comparable with that of European collections. Such objects would naturally have formed part of the collections he was now supervising and perhaps formed part of a larger publicity campaign to a Western audience.
Osman Hamdy Bey was labelled “the most Parisian of Ottomans and the most Ottoman of Parisians” in his obituary. No other artist and man of letters from the region did more to build bridges and foster understanding between the Orient and the Western world. As his audience has become even more cosmopolitan today with the relative ease of travel, his paintings are more relevant than ever.