Ottoman art of decoration
The discouragement of representative art by Islam led on the one hand to the development of calligraphy, and on the other to graphic forms of expression derived from ancient roots applied to all areas of creative expression.
Decoration of kinds was known as nakis, and applied to every area from architecture to the minor arts, from books to tiles, and fabrics to weapons.
Stylistically, nakis cannot be described as originating entirely in the decorative tradition of the Seljuk or Beylik periods, although their influence is visible. Similarly it is not heavily influenced by Persian or Byzantine arts. Instead its main sources of inspiration include the Mongol Timurids, the Far East and the Turkmen states. Ottoman artists combined these sources of inspiration with their own traditions in a constant process of synthesis, recreating them in original forms.
Designers of past centuries
The Ottoman visual world took shape in the hands of designer-craftsmen of numerous types referred to as a whole as nakkas…
The focal point of this art, from which new ideas stemmed and where the finest artists were trained, was the Palace Nakkashane or desing shop Here the styles, forms and tastez which were disseminated to the outer most frontiers of the empire were shaped, developed and taught. In a sense the Nakkashane was the creator of the Ottoman visual identity.
Ottoman decorators were involved in the design and application of decorative work in a wide range of fields, and had various names according to their field of specialisation:
Musavvir nakkas executed miniature paintings, and other types of genre and portrait painting.
Tarrah were responsible for designing the layout of book pages, and also executed pictures of gardens.
MOzehhip executed illumination for books, calligraphic panels and diverse objects.
Cetvelkes executed the ruled borders of manuscripts and repaired damaged pages. Ressam executed ink and brush drawings.
Ottoman nakkas learnt the secrets of their art from their masters, just as they had learnt from masters before them, practising what they learnt by means of mesk exercises until their art was an inherent parttheir being.
They worked for years in an almost mystic adherence to their art.
Despite this traditional structure which might be assumed to have encouraged inertia, decorators were always receptive to new influences and new materials. Because while being attached to accepted forms and traditions on the one hand, on the other the winds of creative freedom exerted an astonishing effect on this art form.
The Ottoman decorator was able to create the visual wealth which characterised Ottoman art by means of this sensitive balance between respect for tradition and liberty.
The alphabet of Ottoman visuality
FORMS AND STYLES
The greater part of Ottoman decorative art is based on symbolic and geometric decorative elements whose origins can be traced back to ancient Asian and Anatolian civilisations. Motifs like five-, six- and eight-cornered stars, the swastika, triangle, circle, spiral, comb and Seal of Solomon appear in various applications in Ottoman decorative art.
But the real genius of Ottoman decorative art lies in styles inspired by zoological and plant forms. Like the principal six scripts of the art of calligraphy, these styles took shape in response to different functional and aesthetic needs.
Rumi: This typical Anatolian style is referred to in Persian sources as frenk. It is largely believed to consist of stylised animal and plant forms. The most widely used type of Ottoman decoration, it has several subtypes.
- This style originated in the Far East and Central Asia, and consists of stylised flower and plant motifs. It was used to ornament every kind of art object.
- Also known as Golden Horn designs, these are spiralling designs with tiny flowers. This type of motif was applied to fabrics, book decoration, those fermans which were sent to foreign nations, and ceramics.
- These designs were introduced to the Ottoman palace in the 1520s by a group of artists from Tabriz, notably Sahkulu who became head of the palace decorators. Executed in complex brushwork style, they are characterised by serrated lanceolate leaves crossing one another, amongst which are found pen i (fairies), human figures, animals, birds, dragons, the mythical phoenix, and other symbols of far-off lands.
- “Negative” decoration consisting of patterns reserved against a painted background.
- A geometric style of Timurid origin, which intermingled with Far Eastern motifs took on various forms.
- A style based on floriate motifs which was used in every field from the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent onwards, including carpets and fabrics, marble carving and tiles. It is characterised by tulips, carnations, hyacinths, and branches bearing blossom.
The reign of Ahmet Ill (1703-1730) marks a turning point away from the consistent course whose peak had lasted from the early 16th to the mid-17th centuries. It was during the early 18th century that the painted wall and furniture decoration known as Edirne work first appeared, for example. Again at this time the work of the famous nakkas Ali Uskudari provides striking evidence of the way in which new styles were influencing the decorative arts.
However, the hing point of Ottoman decoration continued to make itself felt over the 18th and 19th centuries, and it remains at the roots of tastes in decoration in Turkey to the present day.
Oriental style painting
Oriental rulers never paid much attention to the prohibition on figurative art. The Ornayyad and Abbasid caliphs had the walls of their palaces decorated with murals featuring human and animal figures. The magnificent architecture of the Seljuks was adorned with sculpture, and above all in the great palaces of Eastern rulers miniature painting developed. The roots of this type of painting can be traced back to the pre-Islamic period. Miniature painting passed by turn from the Timurid and Turkmen states, to the Safavids of Iran, the Seljuks and the Ottomans.
Sultan Mehmed ll was the first Ottoman sultan to display an interest in the art of figurative painting, hiring famous nakkas and musavvir to execute paintings on some of the palace walls. He was the first to have his portrait painted by a Western artist (Bellini), and started the collection of works by Eastern and Western artists which was later to become known as the Fatih Album.
But Mehmed ll’s successors did not take the some interest in figurative painting, and Ottoman miniature painting survived only as the art of book illustration, confined within bindings and the walls of the palace. It is in the 16th and 17th centuries, during the reigns of Suleyman I, Selim II and Murad III that we find the greatest masters of miniature painting.
Miniatures painted for the palace and ruling classes were not only executed in Istanbul, but in cities such as Carlo and Baghdad. Their style influenced local folk art at various times and in various regions of the empire.
An artist with a sense of guilt
THE MINIATURE PAINTER
Ottoman miniature paintings are less ornate, have a more straightforward narrative style, and are remarkably realistic in comparison to those of other Eastern countries. As a general rule they depict specific historic events, wars, victories and public festivities in meticulous detail.
The miniaturist – musavvir – observed his subject carefully, closely studying its morphological and spatial characteristics, and graphic structure. But he was obliged to represent these on paper using the traditi onal narrative stereotypes
passed down over the centuries. Within this traditional framework the Ottoman miniature painter exercised an unexpected degree of freedom, and in his constant search to portray reality, achieved a highly sophisticated narrative medium.
Marginalised by religious disapproval of human representation, miniaturists suffered from a sense of guilt. They worked only at the palace workshops on orders for the sultan, illustrating his major achievements, campaigns, biographical accounts of the sultans known as sehname, and public festivities.
Although the emphasis is on historical documentation, the world which the artist observes so closely is a lively and vigorous one which stretches his imagination. In addition to visual documentation of the events of his age -like the press photographers or documentary film producers of our own- the Ottoman miniaturist is also an undiluted artist; even if fate confined his art to the palace and to the book.
Creators and masterpieces of Ottoman miniature
GREAT MASTERS OF SMALL PICTURES
The first major miniature painter known to us by name is Sinan Bey, author of the celebrated portrait of Mehl-net 11 (1451-1461). It is thought that this artist may hove been influenced by Western art through acquaintance with the art of Bellini. Famous book illustrations of the same century are those for Badi-el-Tebrizi’s Dilsizname (Edirne .1455-56), K011iyat-i Kotibi, and by an anonymous artist for the poet Ahrnedi’s Iskenderndme. It was during these years that an original style of historical depiction emerged.
In the 16th century a very distinctive master painter came to the fore with his famous illustrations for Beyan-i Sefer-i Irakeyn, describing the places the army passed through during Ottoman campaigns to Iraq. Matrakci Nasuh el-Silahi was not only historian, writer, calligrapher, and mathematician, but skilled in the martial arts, particularly the sport known as rnatrak involving the tossing of clubs, and above all an outstanding painter. His paintings are reminiscent of today’s naive paintings, but have no counterparts either in Eastern miniature or the contemporary art of the ‘Nest.
The reign of SCileyman the Magnificent was when the sehname as a literary work came into its own, and the Ottoman art of miniature rose to its zenith. Of the five-volume sehname written by the poet Arifi and illustrated by various painters, three volumes stand out as being of particular importance: the Enbiyaname. Osrnanname and SOleymannarne.
The most outstanding years of Ottoman miniature coincide with the reigns of Selim II and Murad II in the second half of the 16th century.The succession of books written by sehname writer Seyyit Lokman were illustrated by the great miniaturist Nakkas Osman and other miniature painters working under his direction. The Zafername, Sehname-i Selim Han, Sehinsehniame, Hunername and Zubdeta’t-Tevarih are the products of this brilliant epoch. We find the most interesting miniatures of the period in the Surname illustrating the festivities held to celebrate the circumcision of the sons of Murad III.
Other celebrated illustrated manuscripts of the period are the Siyer-i Nebi on the life of the Prophet Muhammed, and E ri Fetihnomesi illustrated by Hasan, famous miniaturist of the reign of Mehrned III.
A later miniature painter of exceptionally renown is LevnT, cognomen for Abdulcolil Celebi, whose celebrated Surname-i VehloT and his sensitive portraits and unusual depiction of human figures mark the final peak of this art in the early 18th century.
Family album of the dynasty
PORTRAITS OF THE SULTANS
As the real and symbolic identity of the sultan gained importance in the structure of the empire, corresponding importance began to be attached to their physical appearance. So portraits were executed stressing the continuity of the dynasty. Mehmed 11 (1451-1481) was the first to have his portrait painted, by both Western painters and those employed at his own court.
The Ottoman seacaptain Haydar Reis, who painted miniatures under the cognomen Nigari in the 16th century, won fame for his portraits of Selim 11 (1512-1520) and the Ottoman admiral Barbaros Hayreddin. In the second half of the century Seyyid Lokman and Nakkas Osman asked Sokullu Mehmed Pasa to commission portraits from artists in Europe of all the Ottoman sultans prior to Mehmed II, and they used these to illustrate kiyafetu’l-Insaniye fi Semoili’l-Osmaniye, containing portraits of all the Ottoman sultans from Osman Gazi to Murad III. From then on every sultan had such an album produced for himself, or additions made to an existing album.
In 17th century Edirne genealogical trees were produced for the Ottoman royal family, and in the 18th century Levni had these compiled into an album and extended it as far as the reign of Ahmed III.
In subsequent periods royal portaits passed from the pages of books to canvas, and until the fall of the last sultan each one had his portrait painted in oils for hanging on the palace walls.
Wind from the West
WESTERN FORMS IN PAINTINGS
Some European painters who visited the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century and recorded the visual world of the Ottomans in the techniques of western style painting (such as A.de Favry, Van Mour, Castellon, Moreau le Jeune and Melling) laid the ground for Ottoman painting in the western sense and using western techniques which was to emerge in the early 19th century.
The Ottoman court played a major role in the introduction of western style painting. During the reigns of Abdulhamid I (1774-1789), Selim III (1789-1807) and Mahmut II (1808-1839), mural paintings were commissioned for the walls of Topkapi Palace. This fashion which originated in Istanbul spread to the provinces in the second half of the 19th century, and houses and sacral buildings began to be ornamented with wall paintings.
Painting and drawing classes introduced at the newly established military colleges in the course of westernisation meant that many of Turkey’s first painters in western style were officers.
Sultan Abdulaziz (1861-1876) was a keen amateur painter, and encouraged the development of western art. He hired painters from Europe to execute large paintings similar to those which he saw at the Louvre and in Versailles during his state visit to Europe, and the paintings which he purchased from France during that visit were hung up at Dolmabahce Palace.
The first Ottoman painters trained in western techniques during the reigns of Abdulmecid and Abdulaziz are known as the Turkish Primitives. This first generation of painters, who left the tradition of miniature behind and looked with a new and fresh vision, concentrated mainly on landscapes, primarily views of the gardens of imperial pavilions.
The second generation of Ottoman painters included Osman Hamdi, Seker Ahmed Pasa and Hoca All Riza. In 1862 Sultan Abdulaziz sent Seker Ahmed Pasa to France, where he was influenced by Courbet and other French painters. His return to Turkey in 1870 marked the beginning of a new era in Turkish painting. Just as the curtain had fallen on Ottoman miniature, so it did on the primitives, and Turkish painting came into its own at last.
When speaking of the founders of western style painting in Ottoman Turkey. Osman Hamdi is unquestionably foremost among them. As both artist and archaeologist he took the most important steps towards modernisation of the country, and became the founder of the Academy of Fine Arts.