Mary Roberts


On her book Istanbul Exchanges: Ottomans, Orientalists, and Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture

Cover Interview of January 31, 2017

In a nutshell

In “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863) Charles Baudelaire writes about the great “operatic shores of the Bosporus.” More recently Orhan Pamuk reflects with melancholy on Istanbul’s former multiethnic vibrancy in the nineteenth century. Istanbul Exchanges, too, is inspired by the Ottoman capital and its cosmopolitan artistic milieu in that century. The cultural exchanges that occurred in the city cannot be contained by a narrow national history of Turkish art because the players within these art circles were far more diverse. Nor is this cultural geography explicable through a polarized theory of Orientalism where we simply address Europe’s representation of cultures of the Islamic world.

Few of us think of Istanbul when we recall Baudelaire’s famous essay of 1863 and yet the city is at the heart of Baudelaire’s lyrical paean to nineteenth-century modernity. In the Istanbul sketches of Constantin Guys, Baudelaire found signs of modernity in contingent details that conveyed a disjunctive encounter between East and West. The cosmopolitan Ottoman capital may have been occluded from histories of nineteenth-century modern art in our own time, yet Istanbul, like Paris, was one of Baudelaire’s key sites of modernity. Osman Hamdi Bey, Women in Feraces, 1887, Oil on Canvas, 81 x 131 cm. Yapı Kredi Painting Collection, Istanbul.

Baudelaire didn’t write about Ottoman art, yet Paris-trained Osman Hamdi Bey was a painter of modern life whose work resonates with Charles Baudelaire’s formulations about contemporary art. Osman Hamdi’s painting, Women in Feraces, 1887, is but one of many works by European-trained Ottoman painters discussed in my book that challenge us to think about the modernity of this art. This painting renders the public space of Istanbul as a site of modernity through the hybrid fashions of elite Ottoman women.  The contours of the bustle, an index of modishness in international women’s fashion, are evident underneath the ferace, and translucent face veils are modishly combined with matching and contrasting parasols. The beauty of this fashion pageant, that mixes eastern and western influences, is conveyed through the syncopated rhythms of colour as the eye moves laterally across the surface of Osman Hamdi’s painting. This is not a timeless orient – it’s a quintessentially modern spectacle.

The cultural traffic between Istanbul and Paris is but one of the geographic vectors that my book analyses. Webs of art and patronage connected Istanbul to numerous art circles across Western Europe; they operated between the capital and other cities within the Ottoman Empire and also encompassed links between minority Armenian communities in Istanbul and within the Russian Empire in the Caucasus. Mapping these diverse networks of artistic exchange has presented a particular research challenge. The patterns of movement over the century resulted in a centrifugal distribution of artworks and documents from Istanbul to archives, museums, and private collections in Poland, Armenia, Denmark, Italy, France, England, and Turkey. I hope the reader will derive pleasure from many of these works of art that are drawn together for the first time and perhaps be surprised by the complex narratives of their cross-cultural production and reception.