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Artist Feature: Who Was Osman Hamdi Bey?

An old-fashioned, black and white photograph of Osman Hamdi Bey from the nineteenth century. The photograph depicts an older bearded man wearing a suit, glasses and a fez.

Movement/Style: Academic art

Country: Turkey (Ottoman Empire)

Years: 1842 – 1910

Well, who was he?

Osman Hamdi Bey had many roles – museum director/curator, academician, archaeologist, administrator – but here, I want to focus on his art. Hamdi Bey came from Istanbul (part of the Ottoman Empire at the time) and studied art in Paris, adopting a European academic art style.

What’s important about Hamdi Bey’s work is that it shows a very different version of Islam, the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East than what was portrayed in European Orientalist paintings at the time. While European painters were fascinated with Islam and the Middle East, falsely depicting it as a world of unbridled eroticism, savagery and exoticism, Hamdi Bey painted scenes that were more in line with reality. A common line of thinking among art historians is that Hamdi Bey was in some ways “speaking back to” or subverting European Orientalist paintings.

This is maybe best shown through a comparison between European paintings of Middle Eastern women, and Hamdi Bey’s paintings of Ottoman women. European paintings of Middle Eastern women were usually very sexualised and often took place in a harem. European men couldn’t enter harems, so in many ways they became symbols of the imagined depravity of the Middle East. Europeans imagined that hundreds of sex slaves lived behind harem doors, in an environment of languid decadence. Harem women were painted in suggestive, fetishising and exoticising ways.

A 19th century French painting in an academic style showing a fictionalised harem scene. A number of scantily clad women are sitting or standing in an opulent room. A bath is in the foreground, with some of the women washing their hair or bathing. One woman has her head tilted back and is smoking from a hookah.

Le bain au Harem (c. 1830), Philippe-Jacques van Bree – a typical European Orientalist harem scene.

In comparison, Osman Hamdi Bey’s scenes of Ottoman women often show them engaging in educational activities such as reading or playing musical instruments. Although they may not all take place in harems, his paintings reflect the fact that harems were simply spaces in Muslim households (usually in royal, aristocratic and upper class families) that were reserved for female family members, female servants and pre-pubescent male children. In the Ottoman Empire, harems were spaces were women could be educated and brought up in a respectable manner.

A nineteenth century painting. A woman dressed in traditional Ottoman clothing is kneeling in front of a large qur'an on a stand. The wall behind her is covered in an intricate tiled pattern, along with a large window showing the flowering trees outside.

Kuran Okuyan Kız (Girl Reciting the Qur’an) (1880), Osman Hamdi Bey

It’s worth noting that Osman Hamdi Bey studied art in Paris with European Orientalist painters such as Jean-Léon Gérôme and Gustave Boulanger. So, while there’s a lot of art historical scholarship arguing that he resisted Western Orientalism, there’s also scholarship arguing that, in some ways, he continued it, and that he didn’t really challenge it.

Turkish historian Edhem Eldem points to one of Osman Hamdi Bey’s personal letters to his father to find out more about his political views. In it, Hamdi Bey writes quite critically about Ottoman culture: “With the exception of my dear family and a few others, please, Dear Father, just look around you! What do you see in families? Nothing but corruption, depravation, fights, divorces. They are infested by slavery and lose their morality to odalisques … Please note, my Dear Father, that by demolishing in such a way our customs, which are no longer those of the Muslim, I am not praising European customs either. I have many objections to them, too, but nevertheless, I must say that I prefer them if only because they are generally depraved, corrupt and immoral only outside the marriage”.

Based on this letter, Eldem argues that Hamdi Bey “possessed a strong base of ‘acquired’ Orientalism of a western kind”, and didn’t present as much of a challenge to Western Orientalism as is commonly thought.

Give me the gossip!

Interestingly, Hamdi Bey had two wives over the course of his life – both were French, and both were named Marie. (So I guess he had a very specific type.) His second wife, however, later changed her name to Naile Hanim. He had five children all together: two with Marie (Fatma and Hayriye) and three with Naile (Melek, Leyla and Nazli). He almost exclusively used his family members and himself as models for his artworks.

A painting of a woman in profile in front of a plain background. She's wearing an embroidered headscarf.

Naile Hanım (1910), Osman Hamdi Bey


Give me a quick selection of his art!

A nineteenth century painting of a man dressed in traditional Ottoman clothing standing with his back to the viewer in a room. On the floor around him are five tortoises. The man is holding a long flute behind his back.

The Tortoise Trainer (1908)

The Tortoise Trainer is probably Osman Hamdi Bey’s most famous work, and in 2004 it broke the record for most expensive sold painting by a Turkish artist – $3.5 million. There are many different interpretations of the painting – some interpret the slow-moving tortoises as being a symbol of his own art process, and some interpret them as being a symbol of the ineffective reforms made during the 19th century in the Ottoman Empire. The trainer is wearing a traditional Ottoman religious costume, and is training the tortoises with a traditional ney flute.

Nineteenth century painting of two women on a carpet in an interior space. Both are wearing traditional Ottoman clothing. One woman is kneeling down with a daf (tambourine) in her hand, while the other is standing above her playing a tambur (big stringed instrument).

Two Musician Girls (1880)

This is another example of one of Osman Hamdi Bey’s scenes of Ottoman women. The women here are playing two traditional Turkish instruments – the tambur, the big stringed instrument, and the daf, the tambourine. The flattened perspective and use of patterns shows how Osman Hamdi Bey might have drawn inspiration from Islamic miniatures.

Nineteenth century painting of three men standing outside the ajar door of a mosque. The man to the right is holding a book and reading from it, gesturing with his hands, while the other two are listening. One man is sitting down on a bench, gazing at the reading man, while the other stands slightly behind with his arms folded.

Lesson at the Mosque Door (1891)

In many ways, Osman Hamdi Bey managed to create an image of Islam that was based on positive values, like education and community, that counter the violent and erotic fantasies of the West. Lesson at the Mosque Door links Islam – as represented by the mosque – to qualities of intellectualism and conversation. It also shows the mosque’s role as a gathering place for the community.

Where can I go if I want more information?


Academic Art in the 19th Century: What Exactly Were the Impressionists Rebelling Against?


“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”: A Case Study


  1. kaan doğru

    Great Article! Thanks for that!

  2. Fascinating article – I hadn’t even considered that the highly erotic harems were a Western design. There’s no telling where ideas come from in history!

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