Lot 23
  • 23

Osman Hamdy Bey

3,000,000 - 5,000,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Osman Hamdy Bey
  • The Scholar
  • signed and dated OHamdy-Bey 1878 centre left
  • oil on canvas
  • 45.5 by 90cm., 18 by 35½in.


Purchased by the present owner in France in the early 1980s


Mustafa Cezar, Sanatta Bati'ya Açiliş ve Osman Hamdi, Istanbul, 1995, vol. II, p. 723, illustrated (as Okuyan Genç Emir-II)


The following condition report has been prepared by Hamish Dewar Ltd., London SW1Y 6BU: UNCONDITIONAL AND WITHOUT PREJUDICE Structural Condition The canvas is unlined and is attached to what would certainly appear to be the original wooden keyed stretcher. This is providing a stable and secure structural support. There is brown gum tape covering all four turnover and tacking edges. There is some staining on the reverse of the canvas. Paint surface The paint surface has a relatively even varnish layer. There is an overall craquelure pattern, particularly visible within the blue tiled wall, but this seems stable. There are intermittent stretcher-bar lines corresponding to the central vertical stretcher-bar. Inspection under ultra-violet light shows some scattered minor retouchings, the most significant of which are: 1) a spot to the right of the centre of the candle, 2) two fine lines to the upper part of the sitter's back, 3) a spot on the right hand side of the niche in the right of the composition, 4) an older retouching within the sitter's left calf, 5) some small retouchings towards the centre of the lower horizontal framing edge, 6) several small retouchings within the dark pigments below the red pillow in the left of the composition, and 7) a line of retouching towards the centre of the left vertical framing edge above the signature. Summary The painting therefore appears to be in very good and stable condition. The painting is held in a decorative gold-painted wood and plaster frame with laurel leaf motifs.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

As the first Turkish artist fully to embrace an academic, European style, Osman Hamdy Bey created paintings that eloquently combined the subjects and techniques of two distinctly different worlds. Born in Constantinople and trained in Paris during the 1860s under the tutelage of Gustave Boulanger, his refined synthesis of eastern and western influences is especially evident in this masterpiece The Scholar, in which an Orientalist subject is explored and seen through the eyes of an artist intimately familiar with the culture he documents, rather than of a Western outsider. Executed in 1878, the painting predates a second, later version, based on a photograph and measuring 168 by 268cm, in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, by twenty-seven years (fig. 1); and a similar composition measuring 108 by 206cm (now destroyed) showing a female reader, by twelve years (fig. 2).

The setting for the painting is a secluded corner of a madrasa or a mosque. The scholar lies reading a book on a carpeted ledge against a wall of turquoise hexagonal tiles of the kind found in the Tiled Pavilion or Çinili Kösk in the grounds of the Topkapi Saray overlooking the Golden Horn, and in the Yesil Çami (Green Mosque) in Bursa. The niche in the wall is similar to those found in the seventeenth-century Twin Pavilions in the Topkapi palace, while the thirteenth-century Western Iranian candlestick on the left relates closely to an example now in the Victoria & Albert Museum (see A.S. Melikian-Chirvani, Islamic Metalwork from the Iranian World, London, 1982, pp. 166-7, no. 74). One of the books in the niche is inscribed Qamus ('Dictionary' in Arabic), possibly referring to al-Firuzabadi's al-Qamus al-Muhit – 'The Great Dictionary'. The carved Kufic inscription to the left of the niche is an invocation to God and reads bismillah wa ma tawfi illa b'illah (Koran, chapter XI (Hud), part of verse 88), but Hamdy Bey takes some playful artistic licence, audaciously adding his own name to the right of the niche. The closely cropped composition suggests that Hamdy Bey may have had recourse to photographs as he did for the later version (fig. 3), a practice favoured by the French academic painters, in particular Jean-Léon Gérôme whom Hamdy had met during his training in Paris. 

Paradoxically, the measured air of authenticity exuded by Hamdy's painting is achieved by the many visual and intellectual tensions that it contains. The young scholar is concentrated on his text, yet remarkably nonchalant; respectful, having removed his shoes before entering the mosque and wearing a crisp, lime-green kaftan, yet visibly relaxed, lying on his stomach, his legs crossed, his chin propped up by his hand. The painting juxtaposes the most recognised conventions of European Orientalist paining, notably the minute observation of detail, with the unexpectedly causual position and un-posed, unselfconscious mien of the reader. These tensions make The Scholar a proudly Turkish work, offering European viewers a frank insight into Ottoman life, while consciously promulgating a new and radical form of visual expression at home, where Muslim scripture traditionally discouraged figurative artistic expression.

Such nuances reflect that Hamdy Bey's pictures are not merely picturesque records of fact. In their intensive examination of life in the Ottoman Empire and their persistent focus on the physical and intellectual liberties exercised, they become political documents. While his paintings presented to the Western viewer a more natural and unbiased portrait of Islamic society, so too their depiction of undisguised human behaviour - particularly in a religious setting - challenged the social and religious status quo at home. The self-assured, individualistic young intellectual in the present work could so easily be the thirty-eight year old artist himself, and embodies the rebellious, radical spirit that led him to preface the bismillah with his own name (a detail his compatriots could not fail to notice). Hamdy Bey's nonconformity finds expression throughout his oeuvre, whether in The Mihrab of 1901, showing a girl seated on a koran stand while the books themselves lie pell mell at her feet (fig. 4); in The Koranic Scholar of 1902 (fig. 5), in which a book and the unbound leaves of another are carelessly discarded on the floor; or indeed in the related Girl Reading (fig. 2), in which a young woman adopts the same unorthodox position as the reader in the present work.  

The son of the Grand Vizier Ethem Pasha, during his very productive life Osman Hamdy Bey showed himself to be a true renaissance man, and the leading figure in Turkish cultural life of the time. Sent to Paris to study law, in the early 1860s he broke off his legal training to focus on archaeology and painting. The latter discipline he took up first in the Paris atelier of Gustave Boulanger, and subsequently at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where Jean-Léon Gérôme was appointed Professor of paintings in 1864. Living in the pension of Mme Dupire his fellow lodgers included aspiring Turkish painters Ahmed Ali Efendi - also a pupil of Boulanger - and Suleyman Seyid, a pupil of Alexandre Cabanel. It was at this time that an Ottoman Sultan first visited Europe, when Abdulaziz was invited to the Exposition Universelle of 1867 by Emperor Napoleon III. In the exhibition Hamdy Bey showed three works, for all of which he was awarded medals. In Paris too he met his French wife to be, Agarithe, who accompanied him back to Constantinople in 1869, where they were married and had two daughters, Fatma and Melek.

On his return to Turkey Hamdy Bey spent two years as chargé d'affaires to Midhat Pasha, Governor of Baghdad, and in 1871 was charged with introducing ambassadors to the Sublime Porte of the Sultan. Notwithstanding his diplomatic obligations he continued to paint and exhibited his work internationally with considerable success, winning medals and building his reputation both at home and abroad. Indeed it was because of international interest in his work that Hamdy Bey persisted in signing all his works using the Latin transliteration of his name rather than the Ottoman script. Keen to provide a training in the Fine Arts within Turkey, rather than aspiring Ottoman artists being obliged to travel to Europe to study, in 1882 he established and became director of the Academy of Fine Arts (now the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts). In 1908 he was appointed President of the Society of Turkish Artists.

As well as a successful painter with a burgeoning international reputation, Hamdy Bey was a pioneering archaeologist, a keen amateur architect, a fine poet and writer, and an accomplished musician. In 1881 he was appointed Director of the Imperial Ottoman Museum at the Çinili Köşk (Tiled Pavillion) in Topkapı Palace by Sultan Abdul Hamid II. As custodian of a fledgling institution in inadequate premises, he commissioned French-Ottoman architect Alexander Vallaury (1850-1921) to design a new building in a Neo-classical style to house the Greco-Roman holdings. To aid his acquisition programme in 1884 he played a critical role in the introduction of a law prohibiting the looting, theft and smuggling of artworks, which established an early legal framework for the preservation of antiquities.

Whilst the new museum building was under construction Hamdy Bey worked assiduously to build up its holdings, directing a series of excavations in Syria and Asia Minor (fig. 6). Leading some of the very earliest archaeological digs carried out by a Turkish team, he published the accounts of his finds with the distinguished French archaeologist and fellow polymath Theodore Reinach (1860-1928). Hamdy Bey's single most important archaeological discovery was the Sarcophagus of Alexander in Sidon in the Lebanon, then part of the Ottoman Empire. This extraordinary find, together with other discoveries from his work in the field were all sent back to Constantinople to be housed in the new museum building in Topkapı Palace. The enlarged and vastly improved collections finally opened their doors to the public in 1891. In later years, as more acquisitions were made, Hamdy Bey also oversaw two additional extensions in 1903 and 1904, ensuring the museum's position as one of the most important centres for archaeological appreciation and study in the world.

The many international accolades bestowed on Osman Hamdy Bey during his lifetime attest to the notion that arguably no other artist and man of letters from the region did more to build bridges and foster understanding between the Orient and the Occident. Foreign recognition for Hamdy Bey's achievements included corresponding membership of the Royal Academy of Arts in London; honorary membership of the University of Pennsylvania (1895); the Légion d'honneur (1906); and an honorary doctorate from Oxford University (1909).