24 September 2019 07:52

Deciphering artist Osman Hamdi Bey

Scientific work to solve the “enigma” in six of Osman Hamdi Bey’s paintings have finally been completed. The results await art lovers at the exhibition titled “Osman Hamdi Bey Beyond the Visible.”

Painting: Osman Hamdi Bey/Tortoise Trainer



Osman Hamdi Bey continues to generate great excitement in the history of art as an enigmatic and controversial artist who has left deep tracks in his wake and this excitement creates the need to examine the artist’s tracks right down to his brushstrokes to solve the “enigma” in his paintings.

In his paintings, some see an Easterner who regards the East from the window of the West, an orientalist, while some find a vein of serious social criticism. In both cases, Osman Hamdi Bey’s works demand a more careful look.

Osman Hamdi Bey’s paintings are back in focus today because scientific studies into six works by Osman Hamdi Bey included in the Sakıp Sabancı Museum Art Collection have finally been completed. The results encounter art lovers at the exhibition titled “Osman Hamdi Bey Beyond the Visible.”

The exhibition, resulting from studies in which Osman Hamdi Bey’s paintings named Flowers in Vase, Hodja Reading the Qur’an, Kokona Despina, Portrait of Lady Naile, Writer of Petitions and Mosque were examined meticulously and with scientific methodology, has yielded interesting results concerning these paintings by Osman Hamdi Bey.

Thanks to the exhibition, we can get ideas about the original states of the paintings and realize that the paintings have suffered damage for different reasons. However, not just these paintings, but his other works that can be considered masterpieces merit repeat discussion because we know that he was an “artist beyond the visible” from an artistic and historic viewpoint, too, not purely in technical terms.

The famous painting Tortoise Trainer is a painting that deserves to be discussed brushstroke by brushstroke and we will now take a fresh and close look at it.


Osman Hamdi Bey’s painting actually bore a strong resemblance to an engraving in the Le Tour du Monde magazine published in France in 1869. Just like the painting, the engraving depicts a slightly hunchbacked, aged and bearded man who is busying himself with tortoises and trying to direct them by emitting various sounds.

So, did Osman Hamdi make the painting dated 1906 having seen this magazine published in 1869 with it ingrained in his mind? A letter that Osman Hamdi Bey wrote to his father in 1869 shed light on this issue. Osman Hamdi said in his letter, “I have read the Tour du Monde you sent me.” Prof. Edhem Eldem, who dug up the letter and magazine, would go on to say, “A tortoise trainer was depicted in an engraving in an article about Japan by a Swiss diplomat contained in this issue.”


The place we see in Osman Hamdi Bey’s famous painting is in fact the Bursa Green Mosque. The tired and slightly hunchbacked man in the painting is none other than Osman Hamdi Bey himself! So, Tortoise Trainer is actually a self-portrait. In fact, Osman Hamdi Bey loved doing self-portraits. It even happened that he portrayed several versions of himself in a picture. He depicted himself three times at once in the Reading the Sacred Word painting.

Certain percipient commentators have it that the tortoises which were depicted in this painting, were somehow untrainable, could not be brought into order and on which both training and punishment was wasted were nothing but the bureaucrats. In Tortoise Trainer we saw an elderly man trying to train tortoises with music. There was a ney in the dervish’s hand but even if he blew the ney the tortoises had no ears to hear the sound. Similarly, the naqareh percussion instrument upside down on his back would for the same reason have been devoid of effect. With time, the trainer had come to resemble those he was trying to train. For the same reason, the forked stick dangling from his neck he used to play the naqareh served no purpose. To boot, prodding the tortoises with this stick would also have been to no avail because the tortoises, able to withdraw into their thick shells, would not have been amenable to training through such punishments, either. The position of the ney and figure and his tired face were clearly suggestive of patience. The dervish was perhaps still awaiting a miracle.

Some of the tortoises in the painting are eating the leaves strewn in front of them. This, according to certain art historians, symbolized bribery. The bribe-taking bureaucrats had hastily gathered before the bribe giver. What if no bribe was given? We see this with the tortoises to the immediate rear of the dervish in the painting. They had been unable to get a bribe and were making themselves scarce.


A further detail relating to the painting involved the inscription immediately above the window. This read, “Shifa al-qulub liqa al-mahbub,” that is “The cure for hearts is an encounter with the beloved.” Osman Hamdi was pointing to the thing he thought to be the cure for the bribery machine.

Ultimately, the view that it is a pessimistic painting symbolizing the inability for the army of bureaucrats, ever lazy, ever uneducated and ever opposed to change, to be stirred into action for anything apart from bribery was not an interpretation that fell far short of the mark.

Moreover, the man in eastern garb was facing the west. Like the final days of the Sublime State. There are those who opine that the orange garb redolent of that of Buddhist monks was indicative of a drawing close to death, resembling the leaves that were simultaneously drying up.


Osman Hamdi Bey’s picture now on display at the Pera Museum had its first meeting with art lovers in Paris in May 1906. The name of the painting at the exhibition held by the French Artists Association was L’homme aux Tortues (The Man with Tortoises). In the English catalogue at the exhibition, by contrast, it was referred to as Tortoises. Hence, the name of the painting was not in fact Tortoise Trainer. However, the painting has acquired this title over the years.

A further curious aspect of the affair is that Osman Hamdi made the same painting once more with certain changes. This new painting was smaller and the number of tortoises had increased. Moreover, a pitcher was placed before the window bearing the inscriptions “Allah” and “Muhammed.” However, this picture was not as captivating as the first.


In almost all his pictures, Osman Hamdi Bey left clues awaiting deciphering having to do with their background, figures, details and his approach. Interpretations could vary because the composition he created provided suitable material for differing views, criticisms and appraisals. Just as Adolpho Talasso wrote about Osman Hamdi in 1910, “He turns the heap of details on each of his canvasses into a poem of art and life such that the slightest detail on them is depicted and fashioned with as much finesse as the principle person who gives their name to the painting.”

“Beyond the visible” Osman Hamdi will clearly be spoken of for many years to come and each thesis will be debated on the strength of other theses, clues and references. For Osman Hamdi’s easel had one leg in truths, one leg in daydreams and the other leg in symbols.


Another of Osman Hamdi Bey’s paintings in which symbolic aspects come to the fore is Mihrab. At the time it was done, he had completed the picture titled Creation in 1901. Claims were made by some that the woman in the picture was the artist’s wife Lady Naile, and by some that it was an Armenian woman working in the house.

This picture amounted to Osman Hamdi Bey taking an outright stance on the notions of religion and creation. In the painting, a woman was seen in the mihrab, which Muslims face to turn towards the Kaaba in the mosque. There were religious texts beneath the woman’s feet whose attire is notably low cut. According to Eldem, these books and pages were the Qur’an, the book of the Zoroastrian religion, the Zend Avesta, and Buddhism’s book, the Tripitaka.

Osman Hamdi was showing in this painting that it was woman who was the real creator and this was a “creation” devoid of religious references. According to Osman Hamdi, it was fertility itself that needed to be turned to and faced and to which mental effort needed to be devoted in order to comprehend everything, the very beginning and the eternal.


Son of Grand Vizier İbrâhim Edhem Paşa, Osman Hamdi Bey was born in 1842. He stayed for twelve years in Paris, where he went for a legal education. The years he spent in Paris were the reason he turned towards the arts, especially painting. He took lessons from famous painters such as Gustave Boulanger and Jean Leon Gerome. On his return home, he continued his artistic activities in various fields. He played a role in the establishing of the Istanbul Archeological Museum and founded the School of Fine Arts that today provides education under the name of Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts. Osman Hamdi Bey, who conducted excavations in many places from the ancient city of Lagina to Nemrut, died in 1910.