Osman Hamdi Bey

Founder of archaeology and museology in Turkey, Osman Hamdi Bey is also the leading representative of Turkish painting in the period of Westernization and one of the most prominent names in Turkish art.

Went to Paris to study law in 1860, Osman Hamdi’s interest in painting soon took precedence and for a while he tried to learn both subjects. It wasn’t long however before he decided to devote himself entirely to painting and enrolled in the Paris École des Beaux Arts as well as frequenting the private studios, most notably of Jean Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) and Gustave Boulanger, (1824-1888), both prominent artists of the period. In 1869 he returned to Istanbul and entered government service, serving at various levels until he left that position by choice in 1878 with the idea of devoting more time to his painting. Having earned the appreciation of high ranking officials during the period that he was employed, Osman Hamdi succeeded in getting himself reinstated and in 1881 was appointed director of the Imperial Museum (the Istanbul Archaeological Museums) and in 1882 director of the School of Fine Arts (Mimar Sinan University of the Fine Arts), positions he held until his death in 1910.

Rather than limiting himself to museum management, Osman Hamdi preferred to be actively involved in the field, undertaking the first excavation ever mounted by Turks. The Nemrut Dağı, Sidon (today’s Lebanon) and Lagina excavations were all personally directed by him. Before being appointed director of the museum, he is known to have made historical and archaeological studies in the Baghdad region, where he was sent on his first official mission and to have sent some artifacts back to Istanbul.

First discovered by Germans in 1881, the Nemrut Mound also attracted the attention of high ranking Ottoman officials. Osman Hamdi Bey and the sculptur Osgan Efendi, a faculty member at the School of Fine Arts, were appointed in 1883 to investigate the area. The finds of the partial excavation they carried out there were published in the form of a book in the light of the results of the earlier research. This publication in French, a very significant book for 1883, included not only inscriptions but also scale drawings of reliefs and photographs taken that year.

Osman Hamdi Bey carried out the Sidon excavation in 1887, uncovering close to twenty extremely valuable sarcophagi in the process. The most famous ones, the Alexander, the Weeping Women, the Satrap and the Lycian Sarcophagi, are part of the Istanbul Archaeological Museums collection today.

Led by Prof. Dr. Ahmet Tırpan of Selçuk University today, the Lagina excavations were initially undertaken by Osman Hamdi Bey in 1891-92. Once again, he added the sculptures and reliefs he personally found there over the course of two years to the Istanbul Archaeological Museums collection. 

When the number of artifacts brought to light in the excavations carried out by Osman Hamdi Bey and his associates proliferated significantly, the need arose for a larger and more substantial museum building. Finding the requisite backing, Osman Hamdi Bey opened the first section of the Istanbul Archaeological Museums to visitors in 1899, the second section in 1903 and the third section in 1907.

Beginning in 1840, foreigners were granted permission to engage in excavations on the Ottoman lands. However, in the absence of a clear regulation governing ancient artifacts, the finds uncovered rapidly disappeared out of the country. Osman Hamdi Bey’s most notable contribution therefore after being brought to the museum directorship was to have new provisions added to the 1874 ‘Regulation Governing Ancient Artifacts’ strictly prohibiting their removal outside the country.

A year after Osman Hamdi Bey was appointed head of the Imperial Museum in 1881, he was also appointed Director of the School of Fine Arts in 1882. While dealing with excavations and museum affairs on the one hand, on the other he set up the Imperial School of the Fine Arts and selected the teachers to give instruction there. Designing the building that serves today as the Istanbul Archaeological Museum’s ‘Ancient Oriental Monuments Building’ together with the architect Vallaury, another Fine Arts School teacher, he opened it for instruction in 1883.

Continuing to paint at every opportunity, Osman Hamdi Bey never neglected his painting, either while dealing with government affairs or while carrying out his archaeological and museological studies. Regarded as one of the most successful painters, in view especially of the conditions of Turkish painting at the time, Osman Hamdi produced close to 200 canvases that still survive today, among them The Coffee Hearth, The Mausoleum of Sultan Selim II, Veiled Women at the Door of the Mosque, Prayer at the Green Tomb, After the Breaking the Fast, The Sultan Leaving the Mosque, Women on an Excursion, The Green Mosque at Bursa, The Prayer Niche, The Water of Life Fountain, In Front of the Rüstem Pasha Mosque, The Tortoise Trainer, Woman with Mimosa.

Together with Şeker Ahmed Pasha and Süleyman Seyyid, who were also trained with him in Paris during the same period, Osman Hamdi Bey is included in the group known as the ‘classics’ of the Art of Turkish Painting. But Osman Hamdi’s style and working technique differ from that of his contemporaries. The influence of the teachers, of Gérôme in particular, who produced works in the Orientalist style is clearly evident in Osman Hamdi’s paintings, which stylistically have a lot in common with the Orientalists. 

Compositions involving human figures, especially large-scale figures, are observed in Turkish painting for the first time in Osman Hamdi Bey. There are always one or more figures in the architectural scenes he depicts. Having acquired documentary value today for their successful depiction of the monuments of Turkish art, Osman Hamdi’s paintings, even though they are occasionally criticized for their use of figures, occupy a very important place in the history of Turkish painting.