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Osman Hamdi Bey and His Iconography

Osman Hamdi is a personality who will always remain in the agenda of Turkish Painting , but although 89 years passed since his death, we cannot trace any analytical work about this important man of culture who was born 3 years after the statement of Tanzimat reforms and died two years following the formation of II. Constitutional Monarchy. (2) I believe we have to try to examine the pictures of Osman Hamdi as a whole with our approach aiming to "read" the most important samples of the Turkish Painting.


Osman Hamdi was Gerome’s student in Paris between 1860-1869, during the last period of Orientalism - the reflection in the arts of the exploitation of Eastern countries by the industrialised Western countries . After returning back to his home country, Osman Hamdi Bey realised pictures that have the conflicting pairs East and West, Belief and Love, Life and Death. Another determining factor of his life and his art is his being one of the main protagonists of the newly formed science of "archaeology" in Middle-East. He was the founder and the director of Istanbul Archaeological Museum for 30 years and organised many important excavations. His efforts to protect artworks thousand of years old must made have him sensitive to the meaning and ephemeralness of life .


a) Architectural Elements

In most of the paintings of Osman Hamdi, whether they are composed indoors or outdoors, architectural elements form the background and the main structure of the composition. The artist composes the framework of his composition from photos taken by him or others and then puts his figures and preferred objects in it.

b) Symbol Objects

We can classify the objects Osman Hamdi Bey has used again and again in his pictures as follows:

  • Oil-lamps
  • Low reading-desks
  • Koran protection covers
  • Books (in which mystery of life are seeked)
  • Candlesticks (different kinds and dimensions)
  • Carpets and embroidered cloths
  • Guns (rifle, sword etc.)
  • Shoes
  • Calligraphy plates
  • Musical instruments
  • Awnings and umbrellas
  • Dogs and birds
  • Tombs (insides of mausoleums)
  • Incense boxes and incense fumes
  • Flowers and vases

c) The Human Types (Models) Used In Osman Hamdi’s Creations

  • Himself (In one of his paintings, the artist has used 3 images of himself, in most ofhis other important pictures he always uses himself as the model)
  • His wife (In important pictures apart from himself, he uses his wife as a model)
  • His family (His children, close relatives)
  • People near his family (His fisherman, Kokana Despina, etc.)


His master Gerome by using the colourful, exotic and decorative elements of the East have created alluring atmospheres. But Osman Hamdi Bey had created and developed his own symbolic language that reflects his philosophy of life and the dualities of the "fin de siecle" problems of the Ottoman Society that was experiencing labour pains of change. These following themes prove that he has formed his own symbolic language:



"The Carpet Seller" which must belong to 1880's is the most clear specimen of this subject. (4) In this picture, a European man wearing a colonial hat sitting on a settee and an Ottoman seller with a turban sitting on the floor are pictured. The little girl who is the exact copy of her mother is watching with curiosity this strange peddler, while the wife with composure is standing behind his husband near the interpreter, an elder Ottoman. At the background the richly embroidered wall, the Chinese vases in the niches, Tombak cafe pot, helmet, mortar candlestick, embroidered rifle and a plentitude of carpets symbolise the richness of the East that has always enchanted the West.

II- THE "BOOK THEME" (theologian, hodjas etc..)

First I would like to discuss about two works of arts realised with an interval of 17 years. "In Bursa, At Green Mosque" (81x59 cm) painted in 1890 and "Hodjas talking at the Mosque Door" (140x105 cm - unfinished) dated 1907. All the figures in both of these pictures are Osman Hamdi Bey himself and in fact two figures with the same pose were used in both of the paintings. At the left side Osman Hamdi lost in thoughts with a Kefiye (scarf for man) on his head, a closed book on his one hand, the other hand on chin. At the right side Osman Hamdi with turban reading passages from the book in his left hand. In this 1907 dated work, at the background behind these two figures a smiling Osman Hamdi with rolled-up shirt sleeves is watching them. The triplet images in this picture reflects his life, wearing different hats (Artist, Director of Fine Arts, Director of Archaeological Museum, Manager of National Dept Directorate and Member of Board of Directors in many companies etc..) and also symbolise his divided life due to encounters with different cultures. The split image figures and the important symbolic object "book" in these works of art are clues which show the importance the artist attributes to this subject. "Prayer In the Green Tomb (1881), "Hodja Reading Koran" (70x51 cm - unfinished can be in 1907's), "Eternal Life Fountain (1904) ... Having Greek ancestors from Chios Island, 12 years for education in France , travelling abroad frequently after returning to Istanbul, having many Western friends were parts of the identity of Osman Hamdi. In his works of art one can observe his Western identity inside his Eastern costumes, his questioning and criticising look on Ottoman way of life and philosophy. Maybe due to this negative point of view, he placed details such as the ripped clothes and spider webs in upper corners of the doorway in the background, in "Hodjas Talking at the Mosque Door".


In 1857, at the age of 15, Osman Hamdi Bey was sent to Paris to study and until 1869 for 12 years he stayed in Paris. At the age of 22 in Paris he married a girl named Marie and the marriage lasted for 10 years (from this marriage he had two girls namely Fatma and Hayriye). In 1873 while he was in Vienna as International Exhibition Supervisor, he met a 17 years old girl who was also French and whose name was also Marie. Osman Hamdi named her Naile and married her (from this wife he had four children Melek, Leyla, Edhem and Nazli were born). We know that during Osman Hamdi Bey's youth Naturalism in Literature (Zola's Nana for example) and Expressionism in Art were developing. The women had started to work, they were working and enjoying life as they wished and slowly wanted equal rights with men. At that time which was called "Fin de siecle", a happy Europe was consuming the revenues of the Industrial Revolution and the colonies; the ordinary people were getting more liberalised and this atmosphere of freedom must have captivated Osman Hamdi intensively who had lived his youth in Paris and married two French women. It is not wrongful to state that in the pictures of Osman Hamdi the Beauties of France (We must never forget that , both of his wives were of French origin.) and the women of his homeland are compared. Due to the structure of the Ottoman Society we also know that in the houses of big, closed families there were many women from different social positions (wives, children, near relatives, adopted children, nannies etc..). Concrete documentation of this condition is the pictures of Osman Hamdi's family taken in the garden of their home in Eskihisar... The one and only European woman in his pictures is seen in "The Carpet Seller", apart from this in all of his paintings the lives of upper ranked Ottoman women are pictured outdoors and indoors. But we know that many examples of these are seen in the saloon exhibitions of Western Orientalist artists in 1870's. As an example for "Women Taking A Walk" dated 1887, we can show A. Sasini's "Promenade Dans Le Jardin du Harem" exhibited in a saloon in 1875. However the picture of Osman Hamdi show us in its framework, composition and atmosphere the sensitivity of someone who has inside knowledge on the East. Such as :

  • The sellers under the big green tent on the left have a dual role as both being a pictorial element connecting the row of women in the foreground to the wall of the mosque just behind them and also being the symbol of common folks of Ottoman community. The two dogs in the shadow and the sunbathing dog in the foreground may be the indication of routine, anti-stressed environment of that frozen moment.

  • All of the nine women are aware of the viewer even if they look "out of the corner of their eyes". All of them are "posing" differently. Here we can say that the artist benefited the observations of his artistic eye, pictures taken by himself (or by other persons ), but also documented the unique movements women who have realised that they are being watched.

  • The little girl is wearing Western cloths instead of a black turban, as she is yet too small to attract the attention of men. So she is painted with her turned her back turned to the viewers.
    In "Women At The Door of the Mosque" that forms the former "sequence" of the above mentioned picture, the painter paints five of those nine women, looking as if interested(6) in feeding pigeons. In the background at right, the women beggar with her child is contrasts with these aristocratic Ottoman women and makes the viewer think about the other side Ottoman life. These two pictures with their tenderness and sensitivity can be shown as equivalent to the works of "Monet" and "Renoir" ( who were contemporaries of Osman Hamdi) , in which women picnicing and dancing were illustrated.
Some of the pictures in which Osman Hamdi pictured women indoors:
  • Dated 1879 "Coffee Hearth" (50 x 38) a low profiled woman serving coffee to her husband.

  • Dated 1880 "From Harem" four uncommunicative women each living in her own world, weary, sullen faced, lacking the libido and coquettishness as are far away from the shaping glances of men. In this picture number 4 has a special meaning, because in Islam a men can marry up to 4 women. The tombak basin, hanging cloths in the background makes us think they are resting after mundane chores.

  • Also " dated 1880 "Two Musician Girls", pictures two girls that have to pass most of their time in Harem and entertain themselves.. The attractive point in this picture is the integrated composition of the two girls in different positions with their two different musical instruments, and the inherent symbolism open to interpretations.

  • In "Girl Reading Koran" dated 1880 the incense box on the left and the contrast of nature outside the house are implied. One of the most important themes of Osman Hamdi , "Eternal" and "Worldly", the contrast and togetherness of these two concepts are indicated in this picture also.

  • In "Women Wearing Ferace " dated 1904, (102x68) colours of overcoats resemble "Red and Black" of Stendal, and the ruins of castle faraway are open to Freudian interpretations...

  • "Two girls visiting a Tomb" dated in 1890, the contrast between a girl wearing scarf reading Koran and a standing woman (Naile Hanim) wearing a yellow dress and a hat. Maybe divergent religious beliefs, differences between East and West are picturified here...

  • "Girl Arranging Flowers in a Vase" dated 1881, captures a charming pose at home. Naked soles are a source of unique eroticism peculiar to the Ottoman Society at the end of 19. Century.

  • In the "View from Gebze" /72 x 119 cm) dated 1881, the children must be the 3 daughters and the son of the artist, one woman must be his wife, the other the nanny... By using a typical Ottoman Town at the end of 19th century as the background Osman Hamdi pictured his family and realised an immortal documentation of Gebze, as well as a nice composition of mother and child togetherness.


In this section we will try to analyse the most discussed work of art of Osman Hamdi Bey. Mrs. V.Belgin Demirsar in her study wrote that (7) "when all of these are put aside....and the work is analysed as a picture we can say that it is very successful. Anatomically the figure was correctly pictured and the essential purpose of Osman Hamdi was this." (8) My interpretation is that the "BOOK", "BOOK READING" and "WOMAN" themes of Osman Hamdi are counter poised and compared with each other and the artist puts his preference on the side of women, worldly life and pleasures in this work . The artist was 59 years old when he completed this work and his wife Naile Hanim was 45 years old. The work dated 1901 is in away greeting 20th Century, where "the importance of women" increased enourmously. The woman in the picture is quite young and this makes us assume that Osman Hamdi might have used an old picture while drawing the figure. The single candlestick and its huge candle makes the viewer think about Freudian sexual interpretations and in the foreground the incense box scattering fumes symbolises the opposite pole of spiritualism. The artist seeking the "secret of life" in his books in many of his works now seems to have decided that the thing that gives meaning to life are "women and what they symbolise"... The dark stain of the altar's niche is continuing with the dark tones of book volumes at the bottom and the carpet, than the orange/yellow dress of the woman shows her pink-white flesh, the white stain of single candle on the left and the different shades of white in the open pages of the book balance each other..

The artist who in her dedications to her daughter wrote her name as "Nazly" (pronouncing it in French) and talked to her children in French exhibits the identity of a person who has adopted Western ways and thinking but lives in the Ottoman Society, and all this shows in the iconography he has chosen. The importance of "Altar" is the clarity with which it shows all this...


As in the "The Carpet Seller" this picture's theme is also taken from his teacher Gerome. Nearly all the elements of Osman Hamdi is present in Gerome's "The Pain of Ekber" . The artist's works exhibiting this theme are ; "Prayer at the Green Tomb" (1882), "Two Young Girls Visiting a Tomb I " (76 c 111 cm), "Two Young Girls Visiting a Tomb II " (1890 - 86 x 65 cm), "Dervish in the Tomb of a Sehzade" (1908 - 122 x 92 cm). In the "Two Young Girls Visiting a Tomb" picture the clue of the identity of the woman standing is given by her yellow dress "and we understand that this standing lady is Naile Hanim", the girl figure reading Koran with a scarf tied to her hair (the model used in "Girl Wearing Scar"f) is exhibiting a different "body language" according to the atmosphere she is in. We can clearly see the two themes one about books and spiritual occupations and a way of living which exults in life itself. Apart from that with its neat composition and charming details (the hanging down part of turban on the front part of coffin, and the girl's scarf supporting each other, the tones and colours used showing two girls and forming connections with the other parts of the picture...) we can say that this picture surpasses Gerome's. In his"Tomb Visit" which is much similar to the picture which inspired Osman Hamdi, we can see the above mentioned subjects are again in the picture. While the picture of Gerome only tackles with the interior space, Osman Hamdi Bey puts into his picture the nature outside: From the open door "cypress trees, part of a house and the sky" can be seen. This can be interpreted as him saying: "The most important think is life" ; one will make respectful visits to ancestors and in the shortest possible time, he'll return to real life and continue enjoying it. Some interesting small points in this picture also catches our eye; the broken corner of the Tomb in the front, instead of the the many, unburned, unused candles of other Tomb pictures, with just "a single small, half burned and leaked candle stick"is used in this picture. We can sense a reference to Fatih Law, which permitted the assassination of brothers and their children by the new Sultan (lasted till I. Ahmet period).


The second picture with a different and unique theme of Osman Hamdi is the "Turtle Trainer" (1906, 223 x 117) (9) . Especially in "Sadabad Entertainments" in "Lale Epoch", at night the gardens were lighted with turtles carrying candles on their back, and this knowledge can be the clue in interpreting of the this painting. Thus in the Ottoman State these "turtles" were also included in the pay-roll as "palace-employees" due to their function as living lamps. An allegory between the way a high ranked official like Osman Hamdi (Fine Arts Academy, Archaeological Museum, National Depths Directorate) worked and his subordinates can be sensed here. The Trainer who is painted as Osman Hamdi Bey himself (we remember a more commonly known trainer, the lion trainer) with his reed flute, tongs hanging from his neck and a Dervish's pot on his back (symbol of fatalism) is supervising three turtles eating leaves with their heads bowed in front. The two other turtles at the back are trying to approach to the leaves... This picture can be interpreted as an merciless, hopeless satire of his towards his fellow colleagues at work. The light coming from the only so low window is the important determining factor which coordinatesthe all the other elements of the picture, eliminating all the unnecessary details (think about the hordes of figures and things in the Western Orientalist pictures), and this results in a very successful picture, a masterpiece.


"Girl with a Yellow Ribbon" (1909- 20 x 16 cm), "Girl Wearing a White Dress" (1908 - 21 x 14),"Portrait of a Young Boy" (1907 - 20 x 13), "Woman with Mimosas" (1906- 130 x 93), "Portrait of a Young Man" (1905) "Girl with a Pink Hat" (1904- 50 x 40 cm) " Tevfik Bey" (1899 - 14 x 21), "Naile Hanim " (1897 - 14 x 12 cm), " Naile Hanim " (1897 -14.5 x 12), "Girl with Yemeni "(1897 - 15 x 13 cm), "Boy Wearing a Hat - His Son Edhem" (1897 - 16 x 15 cm), "His Son Edhem" (1894 - 36 x 27), "His daughter Leyla" (1891 - 9.5 x 8.5 cm), "Naile Hanim" (1886-61 x 50 cm), "Young Girl Portrait - Nazli" (49 x 31), "His Nephew, Mübarek" (1884 - 54 x 44 cm), "Boy Wearing Fez" (1882-51 x 41 cm), "Girl with Slanting Eyes-Tevfika" (1882 - 37 x 29), "Young Girl - Tevfika" (1882-39 x 31 cm) are his major family portraits. Among them some like "Women with Mimosas", "Girl with a Pink Hat", "Girl with Slanting Eyes" stand out in view of Art History their pictorial quality . More important than that I believe it is time for me to say that all these portraits have to be analysed meticulously and open minded scientific research must be executed on them (chemical, x-ray, graphological, photographical etc..) so that the many question marks hovering about his other works of art can be solved. The dedications, signatures and dates in the family portraits will play key roles in providing evidence for the analysis his other works.


A picture of Hamdi Bey dated 1908 (175 x 130 cm) where himself (with two identities ) and his son are pictured. Father-son couples always makes one think about generations, continuity of the family and the inevitable end, death. This father and son picture with accesories of ancient times, also makes us think about the inevitable fate of humans. We can also read the rifles, swords, helmets and the carrier footings at the back as Freudian sexual images... On the right at the background there is the reflection of the figure seen at the left frontal in the "Hodjas Talking On the Mosque Door". To this old man reading a book with one hand at his chin, a salesman is offering a piece of cloth. (Maybe cloth for a deathshroud.... "maybe that is the only need of this old man who left behind his youth and his interest for weapons, and the need to show off." Such an interpretation comes to one's mind). Hamdi Bey as the frontal figure sits on a huge column head and has pictured himself as giving advises to his son. He has a Fez with turban on his head and two helmets on each side. Those are the images indicating his multiple identities and the archaeological museumto which he devoted his life. Edhem posing in youth's proud style, is standing, carrying a sword in his hand "stretching his body like a bow", demonstrates the joy of youth. This melancholic picture shows an artist that has sensed he was living his last years (two years later in 1910 he passed-out) and who consoles himself with his mature son , and he also seems to be deducing the balance sheet of his extrovert life - in the world of men".

It can be seen that in his important pictures Osman Hamdi Bey aimed to go beyond his western masters , and by using knowledge of art and painterly skills he wanted to narrate his life and his era and in a great extend he realised what he had aimed at.

The "Iconography" developed by the artist aims to express his spiritual and mental conflicts with the Ottoman Culture, as someone who assimilated Western culture and prefered to live in a Western style in his private life. This symbolism is important because of its delicateness and the way it reflects parts of Ottoman Culture during one of the most critical eras and it is in this sense unique in Turkish Painting . I believe a more detailed thesis with many supporting documents will bring more light to this matter. My thoughts and probes in this essay is for awaking the curiosity in younger generations, and to make them think about these subjects and to point out that without taking into account the unchanging basic problems of mankind in every era and in every human, you cannot approach any artistic creation. I also believe, it would be interesting, if all the artists trying to create their own "iconographies" and all the art lovers who are feeling the conflicting forces of life in their souls contribute in some way to this subject.

Haşim Nur Gürel

(1) Iconography
A language originated from images. To represent thoughts by images in paintings. Every artist can create an "image set" and use them to express his thoughts and impressions in his work. It is also an important tool/means for analysing an artist's thoughts and means of expression in a period of time.

(2) Prof. Mustafa Cezzar's "Opening to West in Art and Osman Hamdi" (Erol Kerim Aksoy Vakfi Yayinlari, 1995) is an important study and I benefited from this source book for my essay, but I want to underline that analysis of his work must also be done by the"catalogue raisonne" method.

(3) DEMIRSAR V. BELGIN - "Relations with Reality in Osman Hamdi Bey 's Paintings", Kültür Bakanligi Yayinlari- 1989, Sanat Eserleri Dizisi 12 ISBN975-17-1382-4 . Architectural and decorative elements were documented by the author in her study published in 1989 thoroughly, so I chose not to go into these details.

(4) This work of art which is in Berlin had been exhibited in a important carpet exhibition in "Ibrahim Pasa Islamic Works Museum" in Sultanahmed.

(5) In that picture one white women among black servants were pictured and in Osman Hamdi's painting women were pictured not in a Harem garden but in open air and without any lady-in-waiting.

(6) When they seem like that; because in reality they are aware of the onlookers glances, and they are accordingly controlling their attitudes.

(7) ibid,s.129 ; Sezer Tansug made the most severe criticism. According to him; Osman Hamdi even surpassed the Western orientalists. He said "In Europe non of the Orientalist painters went so far to make an Armenian girl sit on the low reading table in front of the Altar and spred pages from The Koran at her foot." Osman Hamdi's granddaughter Canan Sarc replied this criticism as saying that, the lady was pregnant and that his grandfather wanted to symbolise maternity and show that motherhood was above everything else. Ipek Aksügür interprets Osman Hamdi's message as "not to forget the worldly beauties against the traditional beliefs"

(8) ibid.. 120

(9) In Mustafa Cezzar's study about Osman Hamdi's works of art, it is suggested that this work was the second version realised in 1907 and a photograph is shown as evidence , but dimensions are not given.

(10) Allegory
A story or concept represented by symbols. Work of art, while seeming like narrating a simple, ordinary subject, referring communal and ethical values. People, things and events are used as symbols of various thoughts.

(11) This subject will be covered to this extent in my essay. I think it is my duty to suggest that a team has to be founded and this sensitive subject should be analysed as a scientific project. I have to indicate that from the above mentioned point of view up to now a scientific project has not been conducted...

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