Osman Hamdi Bey

New Discoveries: The Paintings at the Penn Museum

  • "At The Mosque Door"

    Heather Hughes and Emily Neumeier; University of Pennsylvania

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    From Istanbul to Philadelphia: the Journey of At the Mosque Door

    For almost a century, Osman Hamdi’s At the Mosque Door had only been known to art historians through a black-and-white photograph of the painting taken immediately after its completion. The original was forgotten until 2007, when it was recognized in the archives of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia. This exciting event has incited a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the Penn Museum’s acquisition of the painting. Through original correspondence and photographs, it is now possible to reconstruct the events that ultimately brought Osman Hamdi’s At the Mosque Door to Philadelphia.

    Osman Hamdi created two paintings—At the Mosque Door and Women in a Türbe (Mausoleum)—with the intention to show them at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. He did not dispatch these paintings directly to the United States, however, but rather first sent them to France for an exhibition at the Palais de l’Industrie in 1892. While the paintings were on display in Paris, the French antiquities authorities seized this opportunity to enter into the good graces of Hamdi, who directly controlled the export of any archaeological material excavated in Ottoman lands. As an expression of gratitude for his ceding to the Louvre important finds from a Sumerian site in Iraq, the Director of National Museums authorized the purchase of Women in a Türbe. Upon this arrangement, At the Mosque Door continued its journey to Chicago alone.

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  • "The Excavations of the University Museum at Nippur, Mesopotamia"

    Jamie Sanecki; University of Pennyslvania

    Osman Hamdi Bey painted his view of the Nippur excavation in 1903, just after the final season of exploration at the site. The Hilprecht family owned the work until 1930, when it came to the Penn Museum on loan from Elise Robinson Paumgarten, the granddaughter of Hermann Hilprecht's second wife, Sallie Crozer Robinson. In 1948, the Hilprecht family donated the painting and it was accessioned into the Penn Museum’s collection. Since then, it has been kept in the museum’s archives and was conserved in 2000-2001. Until the current exhibition, these brief facts summed up everything that was known about the work. Although documentation of the painting remains scarce, it is now possible to reconstruct the circumstances of the painting’s creation and its subsequent travels from Osman Hamdi’s studio to Hermann Hilprecht’s home in Jena and finally to the Penn Museum.

    The painting represents the site of Nippur as it appeared during the third season of excavation, which lasted from 1893 until 1896. To create this work, Osman Hamdi, who had never visited Nippur, relied on a photograph taken by John Henry Haynes, reproducing the photograph’s appearance in almost every detail. The photograph was later included as the frontispiece to Hilprecht’s book, Explorations in Bible Lands during the Nineteenth-Century, published in 1903, and Hilprecht’s account of the excavation, as well as his comments on Haynes’s photograph itself, allow for a more precise identification of the painting’s subject matter. Hilprecht reports that during the Nippur expedition’s third season, workers focused on an area northwest of the ziggurat, known as the “temple mound.” The exploration yielded remarkable finds, including over 20,000 cuneiform tablets, roughly 500 fragments of vases, several sections of the temple court, and the remains of pre-Sargonic structures surrounding it. It is the southeast portion of the temple court that Osman Hamdi chose to portray in the Nippur painting, omitting any representation of the pre-Sargonic ruins visible in the foreground of Haynes’s photograph.

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New Interpretations

  • What's in a Name? Osman Hamdi Bey's "Genesis"

    Edhem Eldem, Boğaziçi University, Istanbul


    Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910) is one of the most studied characters of late Ottoman cultural history. Quite a number of reasons can be invoked to explain this phenomenon, from Osman Hamdi’s pioneering role in the arts to his striking character of a polymath, from his prolific artistic production to the relative dearth of any serious rival during his lifetime. The list could be extended ad infinitum and would be confirmed by what is one of the best indicators of public interest: the incredible market prices that his paintings have reached in the last ten years or so. This “overstudying” to which Osman Hamdi has been subjected is further characterized by a systematic disregard for historical context and a tendency to seek meaning in the artist’s paintings. Every point in the artist’s life becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: given a general knowledge of Osman Hamdi Bey’s artistic, intellectual, and political inclinations, all it takes is a proper “reading” of one of his paintings to discover what was intended from the very beginning. The agenda, moreover, is rather limited: the discussion revolves around the question of whether or not Osman Hamdi Bey was an Orientalist, and if so, whether his Orientalism is comparable to that of his western contemporaries. The verdict is almost unanimous: he may have been Orientalist in style, but his intentions were quite different from that of European painters of the same genre. Osman Hamdi Bey has always represented the Orient in a more dignified, respectful, accurate, and personal way, resulting in a major difference with his western counterparts, whose art sought to create an exotic, erotic, violent and timeless representation of the East.

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  • Defining Empire’s Patrimony: Ottoman Perception of Antiquities

     Zeynep Çelik; New Jersey Institute of Technology

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    A painting in the permanent galleries of the Pera Museum, titled Yeni Cami and the Port of Istanbul, tells another story beyond depicting yet again the famous view of the historic peninsula. It shows in the foreground antiquities lying on an embankment, ready to be shipped to France. A rowboat, being loaded by native workers under the supervision of a European man, carries the fragments to a large boat, anchored at a distance. The painting is by Jean-Baptiste Hilaire, dates from 1789, and has a subtitle: Embarkation of Antique Fragments Sent to France. Hilaire was closely associated with Compte Choisseul-Gouffier, the French ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1784 to 1792. During his tenure in Istanbul, Choisseul-Gouffier convinced Sultan Abdülhamid I to issue him a firman to remove some fragments from the Acropolis in what seems to have been a common practice that accompanied diplomatic service at the time. The French consul to Athens acquired quite an impressive collection of antiquities on behalf of the ambassador and sent them to Istanbul to be catalogued on their way to France. Hilaire’s painting documents the departure of this collection.

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  • The Art of Osman Hamdi Bey

    Emine Fetvaci; Boston University

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    The nineteenth-century Ottoman painter Osman Hamdi is often discussed in the context of Orientalism and colonialism. Hamdi is viewed by some as offering a revisionist indigenous response to the depiction of Europe’s most significant “other,” and by others as an Ottoman Orientalist. His copiously documented and illustrious careers as artist, museologist, and archaeologist, and his intellectual concerns and layered identity certainly complicate the binary between “Oriental” and “Orientalist.” While I will briefly visit this question below, my main aim in this paper is to offer other lenses through which to examine those paintings by Osman Hamdi that have an Oriental or ethnographic subject matter. Of his large and diverse corpus of paintings, these have received the most attention. The late nineteenth-century pan-European interest in the applied arts, the search for the origins of decorative styles (as in the famous studies of Alois Riegl and Josef Strzygowski), and the growing fascination with archaeology also formed the context in which Hamdi worked. That he was aware of these dominant cultural and intellectual trends and responded to them is evident from his work for the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair. Understanding Hamdi’s contributions to the fair also sheds light on his ethnographic paintings.

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  • “Conveying the drama as it exists”: Osman Hamdi’s "Zeïbek at Watch" (1867) and Nineteenth-Century French Painting

     Gülru Çakmak; Western Michigan University

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    The reception of Osman Hamdi’s paintings in the twentieth century mainly focused on his Orientalist works. One line of illustrious art critics and historians, exemplified by Nurullah Berk in the first half of the century and Sezer Tansuğ in the second half, criticized the artist for his derivative imagery and for subscribing to the idiom of French Orientalism instead of inventing a distinctly Turkish visual language. In response to this criticism, other historians have read a pedagogical mission in Hamdi’s work, one of correcting Western stereotypes about the East.

    While a detailed analysis of the scholarship on Hamdi’s Orientalist painting is beyond the scope of the present article and has been done efficiently by other scholars, I would like to draw attention to a particular tendency in this body of writing: that is, to the interchangeable deployment of the terms “Ottoman,” “Turkish,” and “us” that conflates late nineteenth-century identity politics in the Ottoman Empire with late twentieth-century Republican Turkish nationalism. The following paragraph by Mustafa Cezar, author of the only monograph on the artist, is representative of this approach:

    In Osman Hamdi[’s work], an Orientalist painter, there is a distinct atmosphere, a distinct rendering of the subject matter that distinguishes him from European Orientalist painters. The magical factor that creates this important difference is no doubt the fact that Osman Hamdi is a member of these lands, of this society. Of course he would approach the subjects representing this country with a different sensitivity than the Westerner, and would reflect his sentiments in his work. (…) Even if most of the costumes he depicted are not Turkish, the actual elements that announce their belonging to us are architectural elements, ornaments and accessories.

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