Mary Roberts


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

Cover Interview of January 31, 2017

A close-up

I hope a reader who stumbles across this book might initially be drawn to the visual richness of this art and then engaged by their cross-cultural narratives. These images are drawn from internationally diverse sources; finding them has been an adventure. When I first began travelling to Istanbul, many of these paintings were in obscure corners of the former Ottoman palaces on the Bosphorus, and many were uncatalogued. It is my conviction that drawing together this visual archive, that will come to form part of a new canon of a global history of nineteenth-century art, can challenge our theoretical presuppositions about cultural production in this period.

The one artwork that is likely to be familiar to readers is Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Snake Charmer. This painting takes us to the heartland of the Orientalism debate. It was made famous (or more perhaps more accurately, it became notorious) when reproduced on the cover of Edward Said’s seminal book, Orientalism in 1978. Since then Gérôme’s work has come to exemplify the binary logic of the European discourse through which Western visual culture produced the East as its other. My book disrupts these entrenched understandings of Gérôme’s art by resituating his orientalism within a broader reception history, encompassing international networks of pedagogy and Ottoman patronage.

Gérôme’s works were among the contemporary art that Sultan Abdülaziz and his aide-de-camp (Gérôme’s former student), Åžeker Ahmed PaÅŸa, purchased for the Ottoman palace through the French dealers Goupil et Cie in the 1870s. Contextual analysis of these works enables us to consider what they meant to an Ottoman audience and to situate these collecting practices within the semantic economy of Goupil’s international networks of image replication and circulation.

The acquisition of Gérôme’s paintings for the Ottoman palace reveals the mutable semiotics of his Orientalism. Among an elite Ottoman audience in Istanbul they were transmuted into Ottoman Orientalism. One of these paintings, generically titled Bashi-Bazouk Dancing, was renamed in Istanbul. Ottoman viewers recognized it as a representation of the distinctive costume and dance of the Zeybek warriors from the mountain regions of Western Anatolia. They had been part of the irregular Ottoman forces and their itinerant existence and distinctive traditional dress was the antithesis of Ottoman palace life governed by formality and protocol. Indeed the range of representations of Ottoman culture within the sultans’ art collection, which by the end of the century came to include numerous paintings of Arab horsemen from the empire’s peripheries, provided a visual précis of the empire’s diversity for its elite audience. As such they were a reminder of cultural patrimony – that which distinguished the Ottoman Empire from Europe – within the contextualizing frame of the modern Ottoman palace.

In 1878 Gerome borrowed his Zeybek painting back from the Ottomans in order to display it in the Paris International Exposition. So too, the painting was reproduced as a print that circulated widely across Europe and America. In these contexts the Ottoman warriors took on more exotic, Orientalist connotations. By tracking the circulation of this painting from Paris to Istanbul to Paris and then back again, the life of their reprographic double, and the variant titles that this painting accrued as a result of these transitions, my study exposes a complex range of meanings for divergent audiences.

This broader cross-cultural interpretive work reveals a more entangled politics of spectatorship for Gérôme’s Orientalism than Linda Nochlin’s formulation about his art that, “The white man, the Westerner, [exerts] … the controlling gaze, the gaze which brings the Oriental world into being, the gaze for which it was ultimately intended.”