Ottoman-era Art! Turkey’s Museum of Painting Deserves a Second Visit

The Museum of Painting reopened to the public last month, and deserves repeat visits to take in all it has to offer of Ottoman-era paintings of sultans, nature and battle scenes.

The Museum of Painting, under the auspices of the Presidency of the Republic of Turkey National Palaces, opened in March 2014. The museum is thematically organised, under headings such as “Sultan Abdulmecid/ Sultan Abdulaziz rooms”, “Westernisation in the Ottoman Empire”, “Views of Istanbul”, “Paintings Bought from the Goupil Gallery for the Palace”, “Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky room”, “Palace Painters”, “Orientalist Painters: the Charm of the East”, “Military Painters”, “Turkish Painters (1870-1890)” and more.

The museum underwent a restoration and refurbishing and reopened to the public on January 15, 2021. It is housed in a beautiful building by the sea in the Besiktas district, within walking distance to the ferry terminal. It hosts a wealth of paintings, each more resplendent than the preceding one, and is an incredible witness to the art of painting during the Ottoman era, specifically from the mid-19th century to the 1920s, before the foundation of the Turkish Republic (which would happen in 1923).

The museum in its new reincarnation has 34 thematic sections, including portraits of Ottoman sultans, palace painters, and visionaries of Turkish painting, the director of the museum, Gulsen Sevinc Kaya, tells TRT World.

“You ascend from a magnificent staircase to the upstairs galleries,” Kaya says, “and that is our first thematic room, of Sultan Abdulmecid, who had Dolmabahce Palace built, and the first resident of the palace for the heir apparent, Sultan Abdulaziz.”

“Sultans had their portraits made to show their power, to show the power of the empire,” she continues, “as well as their ancestors’ portraits, to show their [royal, grand] lineage.” She says that the sultans also had their victories pictured with the same goal, as well as having past victories portrayed, to indicate a glorious past.

“These portraits of sultans were primarily made by palace painters such as Polish painter Stanislaw Chlebowski and [Fausto] Zonaro,” Kaya says. “Sultan Abdulaziz’s interest and talent for painting was well known. He also drew sketches which were then painted by Chlebowski.”

Upon the request of Sultan Abdulhamid II, palace painter Zonaro painted the portrait of Mehmed the Conqueror as well as paintings depicting the conquest [of Istanbul]. He also painted the last victory of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish-Greek War of 1987. After he presented the painting, he was given an apartment on Akaretler number 50.”

Kaya says sultans liked to portray symbols of power, such as payment ceremonies to the army of janissaries, holiday ceremonies, and military ceremonies. “But [we must not forget that] these paintings are also [historical] documents.They are valuable artistically and historically.”

“Sultan Abdulmecid to Sultan Abdulaziz to Abdulhamid II patronised palace painters. Aivazovsky has a room on his own. Palace painters have a room. Seker Ahmet Pasha, Halil Pasha, Osman Hamdi Bey, Abdulmecid Efendi have rooms of their own. We have the workshop Abdulmecid Efendi used when he was an heir apparent set up with a silicone model and an easel.”

Kaya says the museum also boasts the largest Orientalist painting in Turkey, “The Gazelle Hunt”, depicting Prince Halim [the father of Sait Halim Pasha], in the room called “The Grandeur of the Ottoman Empire”. At the time, she says, Egypt was a part of the Ottoman Empire, and when Sultan Abdulaziz changed the inheritance system in Egypt, Abdulhalim didn’t come to rule in Egypt. As he came to Istanbul, the painting came with him.

“When the Yildiz Palace was brought under the Presidency of the Republic of Turkey National Palaces, the painting became inventoried and attracted a lot of attention from the press and art lovers. When the portraits from the Topkapi Palace were added to the collection, the Presidency of the Republic of Turkey National Palaces Museum of Painting ended up with the biggest collection.”

Kaya points out that portraits of Ottoman sultans can be viewed as [large scale] oil paintings and [small scale] paintings made on ivory. As Kaya counts off the many other sections of the museum, she emphasises that “the Museum of Painting is not some place you can view in a day and be done; you need to come over and over again. With children, as a family, with friends… We recommend our visitors put their phone on silent mode and enjoy themselves in the company of the paintings.”

“The Museum of Painting is like a culture and arts workshop. It will remind us what a rich history we have, what rich historical values we have.”

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