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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Later Ottomans and the Impact of Europe

The Ottoman sultans’ fascination with European art, which had so strongly influenced the arts of the eighteenth century, played an equally important role in the nineteenth. Just as they attempted to solve the empire’s problems with the adoption of European systems of law, military, and even dress, so European-style art seemed the most appropriate form of expression for what the country perceived as its own modern and cosmopolitan culture.

Sultan Mahmud II (r. 1808–39) was among the century’s most important reformers. He enforced a new dress code consisting of a fez, frock coat, and fitted trousers to replace traditional forms of clothing that differentiated the rank and religion of each person. Mahmud also refurbished his palaces with European-style furniture to accommodate the European diplomatic procedures that he had adopted in place of Ottoman ceremonial. These changes visually signaled a new regime and were paralleled by changes in the arts. Painting with oil on canvas became very popular, superseding the production of small-scale paintings for manuscripts and albums. Military schools were the first to produce practitioners of this form, educating their recruits in the arts so that they could produce detailed topographical surveys and technical drawings, and many officers became accomplished landscape painters. Among the earliest schools to offer such training was the Imperial School of Military Sciences, which opened in 1834. Several of the European military experts hired by the school were asked to teach painting as well, but eventually Turkish students were sent directly to art schools in Europe so that they could return to teach in Turkey themselves.

Mahmud’s success in eliminating the Janissary corps from the army occasioned other advances in the arts. His first move was to convert the traditional band that had accompanied the troops into a Western-style orchestra. He also commissioned the Nusretiye Mosque in Istanbul to commemorate this 1826 achievement. The foreign-trained Armenian chief royal architect Krikor Balyan (1764–1831) designed the building in the French Empire style and adjoined a two-story royal apartment with ornate moldings to the traditional Ottoman domed prayer hall. Balyan also designed the Selimiye barracks that replaced the soldiers’ quarters burned in the 1808 Janissary insurrection. Later sultans expanded the structure, and parts were used as Florence Nightingale’s hospital during the Crimean War (1853–56).

This age also saw the dawn of journalism. Several European communities in Turkey had begun to print newspapers in their own languages in the late eighteenth century, and Mahmud started the first official Turkish paper in 1831.

Mahmud’s son Abdülmecid (r. 1839–61) implemented modernizing reforms even more rapidly than his father by issuing the groundbreaking Rescript of Gülhane. It acknowledged the equality of all his subjects and established a legislative council to rule alongside him.

During Abdülmecid’s reign, the Balyan family continued to guide the empire’s architectural development. Krikor’s descendants Garabed (1800–1866) and Nikoğos (1826–1858) designed the Dolmabahçe Palace, built in 1853 on the shores of the Bosporus in Istanbul. Its exterior was a neo-Baroque composition; inside, its 285 rooms were lavishly decorated with wares from all over Europe, including a four-and-a-half ton British chandelier in the throne room. European influence also extended to literature, where new prose forms like the novel and the play provided the means for experimentation and for expressing the personal effects of the state’s modernizing campaigns. Journalistic writing evolved with the arrival of foreign reporters during the Crimean War; with their influence, the first nonofficial newspapers began to appear, and these became another important forum for the expression of social commentary. But the most significant development of this period was the introduction of photography. It arrived in Istanbul in the early 1840s, and soon a number of commercial photographers such as J. Pascal Sébah (1823–1886) opened studios in the capital. The military also made use of this new medium, and official photographers were employed by the various defense ministries of the empire. Photographs also often served as models for painted portraits, landscapes, and still-lifes.

Abdülmecid’s reforms culminated with the formation of a parliament and the drafting of a constitution enacted with the accession of Abdülhamid II (r. 1876–1909). After a series of setbacks in 1878, however, Abdülhamid did away with these attempts at liberal rule. This reversal met with mixed reactions. The works of poet Tevfik Fikret (1867–1915) and others reflect a feeling of oppression and unease with foreign cultural influences. On the other hand, the painters Osman Hamdi (1842–1910) and Şeker Ahmet Pasha (1841–1907) clearly supported Europeanization, as evidenced by Osman Hamdi’s wholehearted assimilation of the French Orientalist mode of painting and Şeker Ahmet’s Western-style landscapes and still lifes. Son of an Ottoman grand vizier and ambassador, Osman Hamdi was one of many students to receive a scholarship to study in Europe. He trained with the painters Gustave Boulanger (1824–1888) and Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), and enjoyed a successful career in Paris until his 1868 return to Istanbul. Abdülhamid II learned photography and took a special interest in it. He ordered photographers to record all state occasions and important architectural structures, and to take portraits of notable political personages.

Meanwhile, the First National Architectural Style was developing. It proposed an updated image of the Ottoman state with a combination of elements from the Neoclassical and Orientalist vocabularies, and is exemplified in the works of the European professors teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts. August Jachmund’s 1890 Sirkeci Railroad Terminus for the Orient Express, for instance, features the horseshoe arches of Spain and the striped masonry of Mamluk architecture together with the chatris (memorial structures) of Indian design.

Working in the early twentieth century, the students of Jachmund and Antoine Vallaury focused more specifically on their Turkish heritage, creating an “Ottoman Revivalism” that involved an eclectic collection of elements from European and classical Ottoman architecture. Examples include Vedat Bey’s (1873–1942) Defter-i Hakani, built in 1908, and Kemalettin’s (1870–1927) Fourth Vakif Han of 1912–26, both in Istanbul. The latter’s cut-stone facade and steel skeleton structure come from the European tradition, but its geometric carving, tiled panels, and lead-covered domes all derive from the Ottoman past.

In this period, some artists were dedicated to painting portraits, including Prince Abdülmecid Efendi (1868–1944), cousin of Abdülhamid, while others worked in the now-established landscape painting genre. Artists in this period looked to contemporary Europe for inspiration, and began to organize their own exhibitions. One such group who painted in the Impressionist style formed around the artist Ibrahim Çallı (1882–1960). They later took the name Association of Ottoman Painters, and published a monthly journal and held annual exhibitions.

The nineteenth-century European developments of the museum and the modern study of art history were immediately taken up in Turkey. Osman Hamdi figured large in this scene as well; he founded the Academy of Fine Arts in 1883, initiated excavations at several sites, and put into place laws against antiquities trafficking. He was also director of the Imperial Ottoman Museum that opened at the Çinili Kiosk of the Topkapi Palace in 1881. It presented materials from Turkey’s ancient and classical past, while the Islamic Museum (later called the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art) opened in 1914 at the Süleymaniye Mosque complex to display those aspects of the country’s Islamic heritage.