Anatolia and the Caucasus, 1800–1900 A.D.

  • Anatolia and the Caucasus, 1800–1900 A.D.



Napoleon’s invasion of the Ottoman province of Egypt in 1798 tips the balance of power in Europe’s favor. Anticipating the fall of the empire, Europe becomes preoccupied with the “Eastern Question” (the division of the Ottoman empire after its collapse) and its role as protector of the empire’s Christian subjects. The Ottoman sultans of the period spend much time implementing military, fiscal, and administrative reforms as a means of protecting their borders against further foreign encroachment. Sultan Mahmud II (r. 1808–39) continues the reforms begun by his predecessor Selim III (r. 1789–1807) with the aim of curbing provincial autonomy, centralizing political rule, and modernizing the military and administrative apparatus. During Mahmud’s reign, Western music, the piano, popular bands, orchestras, and theater—all based on European models—first make their appearance in Turkey. Mahmud’s reforms are cut short by European intervention in the Greek struggle for independence.

The Tanzimat period (1839–76) witnesses reforms centered around the concept of justice and equality before the law for all Ottoman citizens. They constitute the first far-reaching and coherent program of adopting European institutions as models. One of their main objectives is the founding of secondary professional schools with European curricula. The new educated elite introduce European literary forms as well as Western-style painting and architecture. The Tanzimat reforms culminate in the constitution and parliament of 1876, but the 1877–78 war with Russia interrupts the process and results in the Treaty of Berlin, under which the Ottomans lose vast territories in Europe. This prompts Abdülhamid II (r. 1876–1909) to abandon further liberalization in favor of autocratic rule. His opponents, known as the Young Turks, advocate Ottoman nationalism and Pan-Turkism, which stress cultural and linguistic unity. The Hamdian despotism is ended by the Young Turk Revolution (1908–9), whereby a parliamentary government is instituted generating a fervent sense of Turkish nationalism. The emergence of a new political, social, and cultural identity also leads to the development of new trends in art and architecture.

Western-style military, scientific, and technological reforms lead to the introduction of Western-style painting. This period witnesses a transition from a traditional Turko-Islamic pictorial tradition of manuscript illustration to the Western practice of easel painting. Early nineteenth-century mural paintings consist primarily of landscapes, panoramas of Istanbul, and still-life compositions. Examples of these are found in the rooms of the Topkapi Palace as well as in the mansions of the wealthy elite. Receiving training as a byproduct of military reform, painters of this period are trained in either the empire’s prominent military and naval schools or the Darüşşafaka (pious foundations that prepare orphans for civil careers). This gives rise to a new kind of painter, the “soldier painter.” Turkish students are also sent to Europe, particularly France, to study painting and engraving. Several are trained under renowned French artists such as Gustave Boulanger and Jean-Léon Gérôme.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, oil painting gains popularity, accompanied by a growing trend toward Westernization in art. Painters increasingly use printed images and photographs as models and, by the late 1860s, many foreign painters are employed by the Ottoman court. From 1851 onward, the Ottomans erect pavilions and display artifacts at many of the world’s fairs. In the last quarter of the century, new schools such as the Academy of Fine Arts (Mekteb-i Sanayi-i Nefise) in Istanbul are modeled on the French École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Staffed primarily by foreign instructors, these schools become centers for the dissemination of French taste in art and architecture. Sultan Abdülaziz (r. 1861–76), a keen amateur painter, encourages the development of Western art, hiring European artists to execute large paintings similar to the ones seen on his state visits to Europe. The art of calligraphy maintains a level of excellence; religious and secular texts are copied in a variety of innovative scripts and elaborately illuminated during this period. The traditional textile arts, particularly embroidery, continue to flourish. European—especially British—infatuation with Ottoman embroidery fuels the growth of this art form, examples of which are included in the Ottoman displays at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London.

Rule of the Caucasus in the early nineteenth century is divided among the Ottomans, Qajars, and Russian Romanoffs, but large parts are fully absorbed into the Russian empire as it expands into Muslim territory on either side of the Caspian Sea. Two wars fought between the Russians and the Persians, in 1805–13 and 1826–28, and a third war in 1877–78 against the Ottomans, result in the transfer of large parts of present-day Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan to Russian control. Annexation to Russia has negative effects on Georgian life. Russians are encouraged to settle in Georgian cities. The local language is eliminated from administrative documents and replaced by Russian in literature and schools. The independent Georgian Church is abolished and religious authority assumed by Russian Orthodox bishops. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the “Armenian Question” becomes the focus of Ottoman attention, and during the reign of Abdülhamid, the deportation of Armenians becomes a common phenomenon. Thus, at least initially, Russia’s presence is welcomed, for it offers protection from the Ottomans and Persians. The repressive nature of Russian imperial rule, however, is eventually resented. After 1845, when the Russians implement more enlightened policies, emancipation movements begin to develop. Armenian, Georgian, and Azerbaijani intellectuals espouse nationalism and socialism. One of the most notable movements in the region occurs in Dagestan. Led by Imam Shamil (r. 1834–59), a Naqshbandi shaikh, this movement advocates close adherence to the shari‘a in the Caucasus and resistance to Russian might. By the turn of the twentieth century, revolutionary oppositions gain support in Tbilisi and Baku. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are administered as federations until 1936, when they are transformed into republics of the Soviet Union.

Carpets, textiles, jewelry, and metalwork best represent the arts of the region during this period. During the early nineteenth century, when most of the Caucasus is still under Persian rule, a strong Persian element is seen in painting and architecture. Palaces in Armenia and Georgia follow the Qajar model and are adorned with lifesize portraits in oil in the Qajar style. After the second Russo-Persian War, in the beginning of the second quarter of the century, Armenian liberation movements emerge which have a significant impact on the development of art and literature. Armenian and Georgian artists such as Ivan Aivazovsky (1817–1900) and Akop Ovnatanian (1806–1881/84) receive training in European and Russian schools. Known as a gifted painter of seascapes, Aivazovsky gains international fame at the age of twenty-five.

Fine carpets continue to be woven throughout the Caucasus; each region weaves a distinctive pattern. Rug weaving is a common occupation of Armenian village women. Carpets are included as part of a bride’s dowry and are often woven by the bride herself. They are also used in burial rituals. However, rug aesthetics and production undergo considerable change in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They are increasingly sold as commodities and thus produced in great quantities following formulaic designs. The same is true of other parts of the Caucasus, such as Azerbaijan. An abundance of fine laces and embroidered textiles are also produced in Armenia during this period and used to decorate the interior of houses on special occasions, particularly weddings and religious celebrations. As with the carpets, these are exclusively made by women and serve as a means of subsistence for them in hard times. The embroidered textiles of Dagestan referred to as Kaitag continue to be produced throughout the nineteenth century and are used in rituals associated with birth, marriage, and death.


“Anatolia and the Caucasus, 1800–1900 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)