Diplomacy: America Begins Archaeology

Osman Hamdi Bey's "At the Mosque Door"

  Heather Hughes and Emily Neumeier; Halpern-Rogath Curatorial Seminar  

Osman Hamdi’s painting At the Mosque Door features an exterior scene in front of a mosque. With the building’s façade as a backdrop, the front steps form a stage upon which a host of colorful characters enact a scene of “daily Ottoman life.” The painting’s composition evokes the visual conventions of late nineteenth-century photographs, as can be seen in early travel postcards or the documentation of archaeological sites, in which ancient edifices are often accompanied by local inhabitants. This staged quality of the painting is very much a product of Osman Hamdi’s preferred manner of working, that is, utilizing photographic studies and sketches. This method allowed the artist to assemble a variety of visual signs that ostensibly represent an Ottoman world.

The painting’s titular setting, the entrance portal of an Ottoman mosque, looms over the figures and dominates almost two-thirds of the canvas. The eye is drawn to the doorway by a turbaned man in yellow who stands sentinel at the threshold between the figures and the mosque behind him. A large red hanging frames and protects the door itself and through it the viewer catches a faint glimpse of the mosque’s interior. A zone of blue tile work supporting a ceiling decorated with geometric patterning hovers above the door. Shallow niches capped by muqarnas hoods flank it. A stilted arch frames the recessed area of the portal, itself capped with a spandrel of vegetal motifs in tile work. Two epigraphic panels in blue faience, whose text is cropped by the confines of the painting, flank the arch. A casually draped carpet beckons the eye upwards to a window framed by a scalloped arch and a marble balustrade, with carved epigraphic bands on either side. This grandiose backdrop culminates in a shadow and two thin supports that suggest the presence of a wood canopy.

The arrangement of the figures is guided by an underlying composition whose diagonal axis separates loosely arranged groups of women or children from the adult men. To the left of the entryway stand two fashionably attired women. These women barely interact with one another, a likely consequence of Hamdi’s use of photographs of individuals to construct groups of people in his paintings. A blind beggar sits cross-legged with his right hand extended. Next to the beggar, the turbaned man swathed in yellow stares sternly at the viewer. Behind this gentleman, an older man reclines against the exterior wall of the mosque. As the eye moves away from the door and down the steps, it chances upon a young gypsy girl standing confidently with arms akimbo and accompanied by a smiling young boy. An additional group of four women, their parasols in hand and dressed in contemporary fashion, mount the steps to the mosque. To the left of this group, a lone man rolls up his sleeve to perform the requisite ablutions before prayer. On the right side of the entrance, a seated man with an animal skin draped over his shoulder stares vacantly into the distance while two dogs approach him. To the extreme right a merchant selling books and calligraphy turns his back to the viewer as he surveys his wares, which are stacked next to a dozing man. Along the edge of one of the books, Hamdi has included a hidden signature in Arabic script, diagonally across from the more noticeable French signature in the left corner.[1]

Osman Hamdi used his likeness and those of his family members for a number of the figures in At the Mosque Door. For example, at least four of the male characters in this painting are based on the artist’s self-portrait: the man rolling up his sleeve in the right foreground, the sleeping man beside the bookseller, the man in yellow standing beside the beggar, and the beggar himself. The woman in the foreground smiling toward the viewer is Osman Hamdi’s wife, Naile, who appears frequently throughout his body of work. The young girl standing on the steps beside the amphora was most likely modeled after the artist’s daughter Leyla; there is at least one figure study of Leyla wearing the same white headscarf and embroidered jacket depicted here.[2] As for the young boy, he is most likely based on the artist’s son Edhem.[3]

The rendering of space and perspective in this painting may initially seem effortlessly veristic, but certain details alert the viewer to the manufactured nature of the composition. For example, the proximity of the foreground to the background creates a rather shallow picture plane, where priority is given to height instead of depth. To counteract this effect the artist arranged the figures to create a sense of recession in space. The group of women ascending the steps firmly anchors the foreground, while their triangular arrangement leads the eye upwards and into the mosque. Another aspect of this painting that betrays Osman Hamdi’s working method is the presence of multiple perspectives. To wit, the artist has positioned the viewer several meters in front of the building, but the full view of the decorated ceiling behind the stilted arch shows a different vantage point, a view transferred from an earlier photograph or sketch.

Hamdi’s use of photographs, however, allowed him to capture a variety of textures, such as the satiny fabrics of the women’s cloaks, the unpaved street, and the cracked marble blocks of the mosque. The artist also introduced spontaneity and movement to the scene with the inclusion of several pigeons shown in mid-flight, a motif repeated in several of his other mosque paintings and most likely based on an earlier photograph.


[1] Observed by Edhem Eldem.

[2] Cezar 1975, 694.

[3] See other studies of Osman Hamdi’s son, Edhem (Cezar 1975, 699-700).

References: Adolphe Thalasso, L’Art Ottoman: Les Peintres de Turquie (Paris: Librairie Artistique Internationale, 1910), p. 13; Belgin Demirsar, Osman Hamdi Tablolarında Gerçekle İlişkiler (Ankara: Kültür Bakanlığı, 1989), p. 87; Mustafa Cezar, Sanatta Batı’ya Açılış ve Osman Hamdi, Volume 1 (Istanbul: Erol Kerim Aksoy Kültür, Eğitim, Spor ve Sağlık Vakfı, 1995), p. 366