As the first Turkish artist to adopt an academic, European style, Osman Hamdy Bey created paintings that eloquently combined the subjects and techniques of two distinctly different worlds. This is nowhere more evident than in his monumental masterpiece A Lady of Constantinople, in which an alluring brunette woman wears a costume that reflects both traditional Turkish values and the latest Parisian fashions.
After the visit of Empress Eugénie to Constantinople in 1869, women's costume in that city changed dramatically. French fashion magazines were widely circulated – even within the harem - and dresses were ordered directly from Paris or commissioned from seamstresses in Pera, in emulation of the styles. As elements of European fashion were selectively adopted and combined with traditional Turkish dress, a hybrid style emerged – one that did not conform to the exotic imaginings of European artists and travellers.
Rather than ignoring this sartorial shift, as most nineteenth-century Orientalist painters did, Osman Hamdy Bey transformed it into an elegant and attractive genre. His images of Turkish women represent the actualities of indoor and outdoor dress in Constantinople, and do so in spectacularly beautiful fashion. But Hamdy Bey's pictures are not merely picturesque records of fact. In their intensive examination of changing fashion trends and their persistent focus on the physical and intellectual liberties that women enjoyed, they are profoundly political documents. Each picture represents an attempt by the artist to reverse European assumptions about the cloistering of Ottoman women within the private sphere, and the stagnant or even 'backward' nature of Islamic society. Indeed, on the occasion of the International Exhibition in Vienna in 1873, Hamdy Bey contributed texts to a photographic Ottoman costume book that made this point explicitly (see Les Costumes populaires de la Turquie en 1873, Constantinople, 1873).
The girl in the present work looks out at the viewer from behind her diaphanous yasmak (a veil comprised of two pieces of fabric). The sheerness of the yasmak was a recent trend in Constantinople, inspired by the bared visages of European women in public. Although clearly set indoors, it appears that the woman wears a tailored ferace (outdoor coat) as well, over her anteri. The frothy lace cuffs echo contemporary Parisian fashions, but the dark colour suggests a lingering conservatism, a level of maturity, and an attachment to traditional Turkish attire. As one contemporary traveller to Constantinople had observed: 'The feridjes .[sic] . . . of the wealthy are of fine cloth or silk, the younger and more fashionable ladies affecting light tints such as pink or lilac, often with trimmings of lace on the rectangular cape, and the elderly ladies more sober tints' (Lucy Garnett, The Women of Turkey and their Folklore, London, 1890-1, I, pp. 429-30). Although Hamdy Bey would often depict this more colourful attire (fig. 1), here he reserves the sparkle for the damask curtain against which the woman stands. Its golden surface is adorned with a design based on a sixteenth-century Ottoman brocade pattern, though its scale and colour suggest it is a nineteenth-century fabric that could be either Turkish or Italian.
The model for this work reappears in another of Hamdy Bey's pictures from 1881 (fig. 2), attesting to his practice of using only a small number of sitters, most of whom he knew intimately. The richly patterned Kazak rug, from West Causasus and roughly contemporary with the date of the painting, finds its way into other compositions as well, and may have been drawn from the artist's own expansive collection. Unique to this picture, however, are the many visual and intellectual tensions that it contains. There is the outdoor dress of the woman – a curious fusion of old and new; there is the indoor setting – where such attire would seem out-of-place; and there is the unexpected inclusion of some of the most recognized conventions of European harem painting – with their ornate interiors, exotic patterns and fetching glances - in a proudly Turkish work.
A bureaucrat, archaeologist, museum director, architect, poet, writer, and musician, as well as one of Orientalism's most successful practitioners, Hamdy Bey dominated Turkish cultural life during the second half of the nineteenth century (fig. 3). Hamdy Bey's artistic studies began in Paris in 1860-1, under the supervision of Gustave Boulanger and possibly Jean-Léon Gérôme. Upon his return to Constantinople twelve years later, and after several positions in the Ottoman bureaucracy, Hamdy Bey was appointed Director of the Imperial Ottoman Museum in 1881 – the same year that the present work was painted. Soon after, he founded the Academy of Fine Arts (the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts) and initiated the short-lived Stamboul Salons, to which Turkish and European painters were invited to contribute.
This catalogue note was written by Dr. Emily M. Weeks.
FIG. 1, Osman Hamdy Bey, Feraceli Kadinlar, 1887, oil on canvas, 81 by 131cm., Yapi Kredi Painting Collection, Istanbul
FIG. 2, Women at the Steps, 1881, from Mustafa Cezar, Sanatta Bati'ya Açilis ve Osman Hamdi, 2 vols., Istanbul, 1995
FIG. 3, Photograph of Osman Hamdy Bey at work, from Mustafa Cezar, Sanatta Bati'ya Açilis ve Osman Hamdi, 2 vols., Istanbul, 1995
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