Osman Hamdi Bey

Osman Hamdi Bey (30 December 1842 – 24 February 1910) was an Ottoman administrator, intellectual, art expert and also a prominent and pioneering painter. He was also an accomplished archaeologist, and is regarded as the pioneer of the museum curator’s profession in Turkey. He was the founder of Istanbul Archaeology Museums and of the Istanbul Academy of Fine Arts (Sanayi-i Nefise Mektebi in Turkish), known today as the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts. He was also the first mayor of Kadıköy.

Osman Hamdi was the son of Ibrahim Edhem Pasha, an Ottoman Grand Vizier (in office 1877–1878, replacing Midhat Pasha) who was originally a Greek boy from the Ottoman island of Sakız (Chios) orphaned at a very young age following the Chios massacre there. He was adopted by Kaptan-ı Derya (Grand Admiral) Hüsrev Pasha and eventually rose to the ranks of the ruling class of the Ottoman Empire.

Osman Hamdi went to primary school in the popular Istanbul quarter of Beşiktaş; after which he studied Law, first in Istanbul (1856) and then in Paris (1860). However, he decided to pursue his interest in painting instead, left the Law program, and trained under French orientalist painters Jean-Léon Gérôme and Gustave Boulanger. During his nine-year stay in Paris, the international capital of fine arts at the time, he showed a keen interest for the artistic events of his day.

His stay in Paris was also marked by the first ever visit by an Ottoman sultan to Western Europe, when Sultan Abdülaziz was invited to the Exposition Universelle (1867) by Emperor Napoleon III. He also met many of the Young Ottomans in Paris, and even though he was exposed to their liberal ideas, he did not participate in their political activities, being the son of an Ottoman pasha who was loyal to the sultan and did not challenge the old absolutist system. Osman Hamdi Bey also met his first wife Marie, a French woman, in Paris when he was a student. After receiving his father’s blessings, she accompanied him to Istanbul (Constantinople) when he returned in 1869, where the two got married and had two daughters.

Once back in Turkey, he was sent to the Ottoman province of Baghdad as part of the administrative team of Midhat Pasha (the leading political figure and reformer among the Young Ottomans who enacted the First Ottoman Constitution in 1876, Midhat Pasha served as the Grand Vizier between 1876–1877, before being replaced by İbrahim Edhem Pasha, Osman Hamdi Bey’s father.) In 1871, Osman Hamdi returned to Istanbul, as the vice-director of the Protocol Office of the Palace. During the 1870s, he worked on several assignments in the upper echelons of the Ottoman bureaucracy. He appointed as the first mayor of Kadıköy in 1875, and stayed in that position for one year.

Osman Hamdi was a prolific painter and author, whose work dealt with themes of archaeology, travel and folk customs in the Middle East.Hamdi studied painting in Paris under Gustave Boulanger and Jean-Léon Gérôme, two prominent artists in the French Orientalist school. Despite being trained by Gérôme and Boulanger, and his reproduction of European orientalist motifs, Hamdi’s paintings present Ottoman subjects differently than his contemporaries’ works, most notably giving them more active and intellectual roles. Hamdi’s status as an Ottoman intellectual causes many to see his use of orientalist motifs as subversive and critical of European orientalism. During his lifetime, his artwork was displayed more frequently in Europe than in Turkey.

From 1880 on, he exhibited in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Munich and London, and started a Salon in Constantinople. His works bear witness to a patient and conscientious method, and may be considered as documents of art history. He was the first who dared break with the Turkish pictorial tradition. Among his works are Prophet’s Tomb at Brussa Miraculous Springs (Paris 1904), Reading the Girl Reciting Qur’an 1890, Theologian (Patrimony of the Austrian Court). These paintings can be found in private collections and in museums in Vienna, Paris, Liverpool, New York, Berlin and Constantinople (at the Palace of Dolma Bagdsche, at the home of Crown Prince Abdulmedjid). His painting Reading the Coran has been exhibited at “XI BIENNALE INTERNATIONALE DES ANTIQUAIRES” in Paris in 1982 and at the “FINE ART OF THE NETHERLANDS” at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York in November 1982.

Osman Hamdi exhibited three paintings at the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle. None seem to have survived today, but their titles were Repose of the Gypsies, Black Sea Soldier Lying in Wait, and Death of the Soldier. An important step in his career was his assignment as the director of the Imperial Museum (Müze-i Hümayun) in 1881.

Hamdi’s 1906 painting, The Tortoise Trainer, has held the record until 2019 for the most valuable Turkish painting, after being sold for 5 million Turkish liras (approx. US$3.5 million) in December 2004. At the 2004 Artam Antik A.Ç. auction in Istanbul, the Pera Museum and the Turkish Modern Museum fought to acquire the painting, and was ultimately purchased by the Pera Museum. The painting depicts Hamdi’s likeness clad in antiquated clothing, training tortoises in a mosque. This choice of subject matter leads many to see this painting as a commentary on Turkey’s conflicted national identity. The painting expresses a sarcastic innuendo on the painter’s own view of his style of work compared to those of his collaborators and apprentices, and is also a reference to the historical fact of tortoises having been employed for illuminating and decorative purposes, by placing candles on the shell, in evening outings during the Tulip Era in the early 18th century. The painting was acquired by the Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation and is currently on display at the Pera Museum in İstanbul, which was established by this foundation. His Girl Reciting Qur’an (1880) broke the record by realizing US$7.8 million at a Bonhams auction in September 2019.

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