Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 16, 2016
Mary Roberts Istanbul Exchanges: Ottomans, Orientalists, and Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015. 280 pp.; 50+ color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780520280533)

For years now, Mary Roberts has been generating scholarship on the complexities of nineteenth-century Orientalism. Her work emphasizes the interplay between painters, patrons, models, and viewers and, more generally, relations between Western and local actors of this complex world of art production and consumption. Her Istanbul Exchanges: Ottomans, Orientalists, and Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture provides a most welcome continuity with her previous work, as it aims at bringing a dialogic dimension to artistic interaction between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, a matter commonly treated from the perspective of a dominantly, if not exclusively, Western focus. Her book is a fresh, innovative, and challenging take on an ongoing debate about the still-understudied interaction between Europe and the Ottomans in the nineteenth century.

Given that the general perception of Orientalist art is that it was produced by Western artists for a Western audience, the “Orient” itself has rarely been credited with any significant degree of agency in the process. In her previous book, Intimate Outsiders: The Harem in Ottoman and Orientalist Art and Travel Literature (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), Roberts took a stand in this debate by exploring the intricacies of interaction—often strongly gendered—between artists and sitters within the framework of art and portraiture. She convincingly argued that images easily labeled as Orientalist were much more complex, and did not preclude the agency of the so-called Orientals. Istanbul Exchanges pursues a rather similar objective, namely that of documenting and exploring an even wider scope of conversation and interaction between Western artists and Ottoman individuals—members of the ruling elite, patrons, or even artists themselves.

To do so, Roberts singles out five exemplary “situations,” arranged chronologically and representing a series of case studies, as it were. The first concerns the preparation of a series of plates representing the lineage of Ottoman sultans, commissioned from the British artist John Young by Selim III (r. 1789–1807). The second chapter traces the fascinating artistic conversation between the Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz (r. 1861–1876) and “his” painter, the Polish artist Stanisław Chlebowski. The next case pinpoints the year 1875, when the French Orientalist painter Jean-Léon-Gérôme visited Constantinople. Chapter 4 takes readers into the artistic environment of art exhibitions in Istanbul in the early 1880s. Finally, Roberts presents three artists living in the Ottoman capital who used self-portraits to position themselves at the crossroads of local and Western norms and traditions.

This structure is remarkably efficient, offering a sequential reading of five distinct moments, each constituting a separate case study. True, the passage from the first—the Young album (1806–15)—to the others constitutes a leap of over fifty years, which leaves out most of the first half of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, this account of visual encounters between East and West at an early stage of Westernization constitutes a welcome prelude to the following chapters. The Young case exemplifies a conscious desire of the Ottoman sultan Selim III to create a visual representation of his dynastic lineage in the form of a series of portraits. What is particularly interesting in this case is that Young was made to emulate a model developed by a Greek-Ottoman artist, Konstantin Kapıdağlı (Constantine of Cyzicus), who himself had merged a local tradition of miniature painting with some elements of Western portraiture. In that sense, the Young album, although not the first attempt in this direction, is a perfect entry point into a discussion of artistic interaction between Ottomans and Europeans.

Almost sixty years later, as Roberts aptly demonstrates in her second chapter, the Ottoman ruler’s involvement with art had moved from simple portraiture to a complex program of historic scenes, and from passive but enthusiastic patronage to a very active meddling with the artist’s production. This particular art-historical moment is truly fascinating, revealed as it is through a number of ink sketches by Sultan Abdülaziz himself to instruct his court painter Chlebowski in the preparation of paintings of Ottoman battles. If anything can really claim to exemplify a lively dialogue between East and West, this is it. Invited to Istanbul by Grand Vizier Fuad Pasha, Chlebowski took up the sovereign’s iconographic program, consisting of a mix of stately paintings and historic scenes. Dozens of sketches, mostly drawn in red ink, reveal the strength and quality of Abdülaziz’s hand. The chapter beautifully substantiates Roberts’s argument that art in the Ottoman capital cannot be reduced to the status of retardataire French painting, if only because Sultan Abdülaziz seems to have had much more talent than Gérôme’s rather mediocre student.

The following chapter builds an understanding of Abdülaziz, this time through his acquisitions, most of them from Paris. Gérôme is a central character in the story, as he visited Constantinople in 1875, placed three of his own paintings at the palace, and intervened in the purchase of some paintings sold by his father-in-law, the art dealer Goupil. This case takes up yet another dimension of “exchange” as the Ottoman capital becomes an important recipient of contemporary Western art. With admirable resolve, Roberts presents the complex network of actors involved in this trade and the movement of canvases from Paris to Istanbul and back, then throughout the world in the form of painted reproductions and printed copies.

Nothing could be more logical than Roberts’s next move, from the palace to the city, thanks to a striking novelty of the period, art exhibitions. Chapter 4 concentrates on the 1870s and 1880s, with particular emphasis on the contemporary debate in the press about who, among the artists, was really Ottoman, with the daily Osmanli (rightly) insisting on including all the sultan’s subjects, and not just Muslims, into this category. Underlying the whole chapter is the argument that these exhibitions, rather than representing some far-flung antenna of Western Orientalism, denoted the existence of strong claims to artistic autonomy, local pictorial traditions, patriotism, heritage, and even political opposition, in the case of some Armenian painters.

This focus on the local artistic environment and its intellectual context brings readers to the last chapter, where Roberts takes up the challenge of revisiting the self-portraits of three artists who figure prominently in the Ottoman artistic world during Abdülhamid II’s reign (1876–1909): Fausto Zonaro, the court painter; Şeker Ahmed Pasha, the artist courtier; and Osman Hamdi Bey, the brilliant touche-à-tout who ran the Imperial Museum throughout the period. In all three cases, Roberts reveals the complexity of identities standing at the crossroads of different cultural traditions: an Italian immersed in Sufi rituals and flaunting his imperial allegiances; a French-trained painter refashioning himself as an Ottoman gentleman; and an Ottoman artist using his art to juggle local and Western pictorial norms to create a hybrid style.

Taken as a whole, Istanbul Exchanges clearly transcends the existing literature by consciously and masterfully bringing together well-chosen documentation to form a meaningful and structured volume around judiciously selected cases. Nevertheless, it raises a few issues that must be addressed. Despite claims to the contrary, the book remains to a large extent univocal, with Ottoman voices barely audible behind a dominantly Western documentation. True, there is a relative scarcity of Ottoman sources, but no real use was made of Ottoman sources that are available, especially for Abdülaziz and Abdülhamid’s reigns. In the same vein, despite much insistence on the significance of Turkish captions on Chlebowski’s paintings, none of the many Ottoman inscriptions presented is identified (fig. 13, 39–40). Similarly, if one insists so much on the quality of the calligraphy on these paintings, should one not have noted that the inscriptions on Chlebowski’s (rather horrendous) Ottoman Sultans (1283 AH/1866–67 CE) are in a terrible hand and even include errors?

Another discomfort stems from the relative disregard for a broader historical context, sacrificed almost entirely to art-historical concerns. Thus, the pictorial program entrusted to Chlebowski is analyzed without reference to the fact that Abdülaziz was responsible for the revival of the Ottoman dynastic myth and of a cult of the ancestors. Similarly, when referring to the acquisition of Giuseppe De Nittis’s Place de la Concorde in October 1875, Roberts digs up every possible connection between this painting and Ottoman history: Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt, the transfer of the Luxor obelisk in 1830, the presence of a similar obelisk on Istanbul’s At Meydanı (Hippodrome), and Abdülaziz’s passing three times through that square during his visit to Paris in 1867. Yet there is not a word on the fact that in October 1875 the Ottoman government repudiated part of its foreign debt, thus triggering a financial and political crisis that would last for a decade, or that these were also the days when serious signs of revolt in Istanbul foreshadowed Abdülaziz’s fall a few months later. To the historian, the possibility of connections suggested by Roberts would have gained strength had they been combined with an explicit reminder of some of the well-known and crucially important facts that dominated the agenda at certain points in time.

This in turn points in the direction of the wider problem of art-historical (over-)reading to which Roberts, although much more careful than others, is not entirely immune. To say that his Two Musician Girls (1880) “celebrates young women’s accomplishment in the traditional arts of music” (120) sounds like a wishful interpretation of what was just one of the many examples of Hamdi’s “soft” harem scenes involving slaves and odalisques. This is further enhanced by the fact, unnoted by Roberts, that he painted the two young women in the most unlikely setting of a corner of the Green Mosque in Bursa, with the kind of offhandedness one would only expect from a Western Orientalist painter. The same applies to his Prayer in the Green Tomb (1881), interpreted as a realist and revivalist tribute to the Ottoman-Islamic heritage. The argument works fine with one of the many versions of this scene where the person praying is a bearded man wearing a turban; it begs for an explanation when the mollah is replaced by one or two young women wearing the latest Parisian fashion.

That is why I find it difficult to accept, or even follow, the very complex interpretation Roberts proposes of Hamdi’s so-called The Artist at Work (1880) whereby the painting’s “contradictory geometry” (166) becomes an “allegory of contemporary Ottoman painting” (167). The interpretation of, as I see it, his problems with perspective as an intentional and subtle message of artistic hybridity strikes me as a rather typical case of wishful (over-)reading, which permeates the other self-portraits in the volume, particularly Ahmed Ali Pasha’s. Then again, my resistance to this reading may be the consequence of larger disciplinary differences and perspectives. For all these interrogations prove that we have reached a point where we can engage in serious discussion. If that is indeed the case, we have Roberts to thank for having provoked it with a truly exciting book.

Edhem Eldem
Professor, Department of History, Boğaziçi University

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