Women Figures in Osman Hamdi’s Art

Academic Essay, Sabancı University, İstanbul, 2019.

Keywords: Osman Hamdi Bey, painting, male gaze, modernity, women


Ottoman painter and bureaucrat Osman Hamdi Bey (1842–1910) remains to be an interesting inquiry for history and art history scholars. As a multifaceted Ottoman intellectual he provides rich material to understand the identity question that is present in late Ottoman Empire, a transformative time period marked by sanctions of modernity.

In the first half of this text, I will briefly cite the life of Osman Hamdi Bey reviewing the existing literature as well as noting the problematic issues in interpreting the artist’s paintings that Eldem has pointed out. In the second half, drawing on the previous narratives about his professional and artistic career; and keeping in mind the potential risks involved in interpreting his output, I will attempt to approach to Osman Hamdi’s paintings through a feminist lens. Suggesting male gaze theory and the link of modernity and public space as a departure point I will closely inspect some of his depictions of women with an intention to understand how these images speak in the given socio-political climate at large. Finally, this effort to suggest a different reading of Osman Hamdi and his paintings should be taken only as a brief introduction that aims to spark curiosity for further scholarly research.

A Multilateral Personality: Osman Hamdi’s Life and Art

Defined as a “multilateral man of culture and arts” by the prominent art historian Mustafa Cezar,

Osman Hamdi Bey constitutes a complex personality with contrasting acts, thoughts, behavior and style throughout his life time (Eldem, 2012). He was born in 1842, İstanbul to a family of the Ottoman Elite; being the biggest son of İbrahim Edhem Pasha, a high bureaucrat who have hold an office in the Ottoman court as the grand vizier. Besides he was one of the first people who was educated in the West and so was eager to send his sons abroad for education. (Cezar, 1971) In 1857 Osman Hamdi set out for a law education in Paris only to return home being followed courses in the studios of prominent Orientalist artists like Gustave Boulanger and Jean-Léon Gérôme. Upon his return he was appointed as the assistant of governor of Baghdad, responsible for the communications between the governorate’s foreign affairs due to his fluency in foreign languages. After his duty in Baghdad ended in 1871, he worked as the governor of Beyoğlu until his resignation after one and a half years of service. In 1881iş he was appointed as the head of Müze-i Hümâyun, the Imperial Museum and then as a founding director to the Sanayi-i Nefise Mektebi, the first Western style Art Academy in Ottoman Empire opened in 1883. Making significant service in the field of museology and art education he was also active in archeological studies and excavations. Wearing many hats, Osman Hamdi have continued his artistic practice throughout his bureaucratic career.

Osman Hamdi’s artistic career begun in Paris in the studios of Orientalist painters which have understandably drawn him to the this genre which he will continue to explore throughout his oeuvre. Upon his return from Paris, he mostly still lifes and landscapes instead of figures which were the dominant genres practiced among Ottoman artists at the time. In the following decade, 1880’s he started to make depictions of harem and other outdoor locations, where the style is very realist as in the Orientalist vein. In many of these paintings the subjects seem to be rational, questioning figures and meticulous attention was paid to the space that surrounds them. Similarly he portrayed women subjects in the same manner, in a slightly different approach than the common European Orientalists, which means with a lack of eroticization. In this period he is known to have completed a series of portraits of his close circle as well. Osman Hamdi’s works were extensively exhibited in Europe and America between 1891 and 1909 while he showed a very small amount of works in İstanbul, which include the ABC Group Exhibitions in 1880 and 1881.

Edhem Eldem who has been extensively researching on Osman Hamdi Bey within the history discipline, has noted several critiques about the previous scholarly studies and interpretations of his art. One concern is that art historians tend to evaluate his art with a specific point of arrival in mind that organizes the modes to approach the subject in a subjective manner rather than drawing more on documentation. Eldem notes: “The risk, as I see t, is that every point in the artist’s life and activity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: given a basic knowledge of Osman Hamdi Bey’s general artistic, intellectual, and political inclinations, a proper “reading” of one or another of his paintings will easily reveal what was intended from the very beginning.”

This preconceived intentions that have affected the narrative around Osman Hamdi can perhaps most clearly be seen within the debates going on about whether he was an Orientalist or not. This debate tightly linked to problematic modern identity of Ottoman Turks, many accounts seems to position Osman Hamdi in a counter-Orientalist place.

Mustafa Cezar, one of the earliest scholars to research Osman Hamdi’s life and artistic oeuvre, underlined him as a prominent artist and intellectual who saw the enriching potential of West and contributed greatly to the empire’s cultural legacy. Art historian Zeynep Çelik emphasizes Osman Hamdi’s differences in his portrayal of subject matter compared to that of Orientalist masters. Noting his figures are active, questioning and acting figures as opposed to submissive and passive figures of the European depictions of the Orient, she claims Osman Hamdi stands at a consciously critical position to the Orientalist discourse (Çelik, 1996). İpek Duben also noting the differences between Osman Hamdi and the European Orientalists, mentions his possible hesitations, confusions and explorations within the conjuncture of late Ottoman era, as an artist as well as a bureaucrat and intellectual (Duben, 2007). On the contrary, Eldem proposes a less favorable option for many, that being educated in Paris, he views his culture and country from a Western perspective, thus claiming that he was intrinsically an Orientalist. (Eldem 2012)

Possibility of a Feminist Reading of Osman Hamdi’s Paintings

Modernity, space and representation of women

During modernity, a period of transition and experiment, artists and intellectuals have tried different means to take the pulse of their time, to understand and reflect the transformations of their society. In art, starting with the Impressionists who sought ways to go beyond the confines of academic painting, new styles and forms have started to emerge to represent the new conditions and perspectives. In an 2014 essay art historian Ahu Antmen noted the close relationship of modernization with the women image drawing on French critic Camille Lemonnier’s statement, which is women image being a characteristic symbol of 19th century. According to Lemmonier, quoted by Antmen, women image marks a transition between the painting of the past and future.

The artistic productions made in the 19th century Paris, the buzzing center for art and thought, seems to comply with this claim. During this time, with the conditions of urbanization, women have started to show much more presence in the city streets, parks, theaters and bars, although still within a limited scope. This situation is easily observable when considered for example the jeune fille trend of the Impressionists, or in paintings of Mary Cassatt or August Renoir. Given the Ottoman artists’ and even Abdülmecid, the sultan’s relationship with this busy capital, it can be argued that the Ottoman Turkish response to modernity also included different depictions of women in comparison to European Orientalist paintings (Antmen, 2014). Thus the representations of women in public space can be taken as a symbol of the changing society.

Gaze and Position: The Male Gaze

Gaze and the act of looking in Western painting has been widely discussed by feminist accounts as a political issue. Accordingly the arrangements that the artist makes in his composition determines who’s look the viewer will identify with and thus which image will be objectified.This organizes how the subjects of paintings are depicted. The way that gaze leads the viewer’s eye creates an objectification that works within the frame of binary states such as object-subject, active-passive and to see-to be seen. (Pollock 2008) Thus it is argued by Feminist accounts that women are objectified through the gaze of heterosexual male in film and visual culture (Mulvey, 1999), reflecting the general functioning of social hierarchy. Thus in reading modern art, probing the positioning of gaze might give a hint about the perspective of the painter and the society at large.

The Unusual Depiction of Women

Returning to Osman Hamdi Bey’s art, specifically in his productions dated in the 1880’s, women subjects are increasingly seen within the public sphere, namely around mosques, tombs or other outdoor locations. Although they are depicted in groups and with their outdoor cloaks and veils. On the other hand in his paintings like Women in Outdoor Cloaks at the Mosque Entrance (1881) and Women in Outdoor Cloaks (1904) the gaze of the subjects suggest further exploration to how he position women within the social and political changes of the time. The women on the right in Women in Outdoor Cloaks at the Mosque Entrance (1881) can perhaps be taken as a case study to comment on how gaze is organized in Osman Hamdi’s art and what meanings it can bear in the light of the male gaze theory.

The women on the far right of the composition clearly gazes at the viewer, being Western or at most an Ottoman elite as we now know, behind his veil. This gaze however with its directness and the slight tilt of her face seems worthy of attention. This slight tilt is often observed within his women depictions suggesting a conventional shyness attributed to and expected of women, while a direct gaze is not a common gesture. Duben comments on the women figures of Osman Hamdi by noting their willful and courageous qualities. Can it be said that this direct gaze does not reproduce the conventional passivity of women subjects but suggests a critical position to challenge this notion?

Osman Hamdi’s women figures who are situated in the juicy ornamental atmospheres of the East, are portrayed differently than a common European Orientalist painter. Not to mention these women are fully clothed and not erotic in any sense, they are depicted in the midst of actions like reading contemplating, playing musical instruments or strolling around besides scenes of idle time and dressing. For instance in Girl Reading Qur’an (1880) or Girl Reading (ca. 1893) the women look comfortably immersed into what they are doing and they are doing an act of active thinking and learning, attributes of the European ideal of rational man. Çelik argues that this gesture “gives back the thinking mind and intellectual life of the girl erased by the Orientalist painters”. Although, the women in these paintings are still subjected to the gaze of the viewer, remaining in the position of being watched and being seen.

Finally, Genesis, known to all as Mihrap, constitutes another interesting point of inquiry within Osman Hamdi’s art but highly exceeds the scope of this text. Painted in a stylistically Orientalist manner in 1901 in a monumental size and never publicly exhibited, this painting depicts a women (perhaps pregnant) sitting on a Qur’an table, manuscripts beneath her feet in a mosque setting. No doubt that it is a scandalous depiction considering the existing social norms of the Ottoman society and culture, it is also a boundless questioning of conventions. Several different interpretations have made on the possible symbolisms and meanings it bear such as the accounts arguing it is an Orientalist painting, a metaphor for secularization and westernization or that it has a porto-feminist aspect, glorifying women (Eldem 2012).


Throughout the text, I have tried to explain briefly the life and art of Osman Hamdi Bey noting some criticisms about the scholarly research conducted on this domain. With the awareness of potential risks of over-reading or lack of evidence in interpreting Osman Hamdi’s art, I intended to open a space of questioning his oeuvre, and more specifically depictions of women, through a feminist perspective. Drawing on the links between modernity, gender, gaze and space, Osman Hamdi’s women figures have presented a brief case study to get a glimpse of the Ottoman identity in between Eastern and Western influences as well as the changing notions around gender in the late Ottoman period. I believe, with the discovery of more documents related to Osman Hamdi’s life and ideology, a feminist inquiry into his artistic output can be advanced more safely.


Antmen, A. (2010). A History of Modern and Contemporary Art in Turkey?, Unleashed: Contemporary Art from Turkey. London: Thames&Hudson in association with TransGlobe Publishing

Antmen, A. (2014). Hanımlara Mahsus, Beylere Vazife: Türk Resminin ‘Modern Kadın’ İmgesine Yeniden Bakmak. Semra Germaner Armağanı. İstanbul: Mimar Sinan Güzel Sanatlar Üniversitesi Yayınları 789

Camille, M., Çelik, Z., Onians, J., Rifkin, A., & Steiner, C. (1996). Rethinking the Canon. The Art Bulletin, 78(2), 198–217. doi:10.2307/3046172

Cezar, M. (1971). Sanatta Batı’ya Açılış ve Osman Hamdi. İstanbul: İlke Basın Yayın

Duben, İ. (2007). Türk Resmi ve Eleştirisi: 1880–1950. İstanbul: İstanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları.

Eldem, E. (2012). Making Sense of Osman Hamdi Bey and His Paintings. Muqarnas, 29, 339–383.

Mulvey, L. (1999). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP

Pollock, G. (2008). Modernlik ve Kadınlığın Mekânları. Sanat ve Cinsiyet, Ed. Ahu Antmen. İstanbul: İletişim Yayınları

Shaw, W. (2007). Museums and Narratives of Display from the Late Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic. Muqarnas, 24, 253–279.

Multidisciplinary Artist, Writer I Writing Portfolio I Turkish & English.