Portraits of Sultans and Paintings

Portraits of the Ottoman sultans comprise a part of the painting collection of the Topkapı Palace Museum. This collection is extremely valuable and contains a variety of portraits of the 36 different ruling sultans beginning with the foundation of the Ottoman state in 1299. These portraits are done in many different styles. Among them are engravings, oil paintings, watercolours and paintings on ivory. No Ottoman sultan commissioned a portrait prior to Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1441-46, 1451-81); for this reason, portraits of the six sultans who ruled before this time were done either according to descriptions of the sultans found in historical texts or were entirely imagined. Most of the sultans who assumed the throne after Mehmed II commissioned portraits of themselves. Those portraits done according to the style of the miniatures tradition by artists working in the miniatures workshop of the palace reflect the physical characteristics of each sultan in a highly realistic manner. The most important factor in this realism was the fact that the artists who did these portraits, most of which were commissioned by the sultans themselves, had the opportunity to see the sultan up close and personal. Apart from Ottoman artists, there are also numerous sultans’ portraits done by European painters. These Western painters would do their portraits based either on miniatures, early engravings, or on their own imaginations, depicting the sultans in a manner suitable to the European image of the Ottomans. There were, however, some painters who came as part of the retinue of travelers or ambassadors to the Ottoman lands and these painters had the opportunity to see the sultans at close range. Whether during the ceremony of paying the trimonthly stipend to the sultan’s household soldiers, the Friday service, or various other ceremonies such as holiday festivities. This allowed them to paint more realistic portraits of the sultans. As mentioned above, the first Ottoman sultan to actually pose for his portrait was Sultan Mehmed II; those portraits of him that are done according to the miniatures tradition are currently a part of the palace’s manuscripts collection, while oil paintings of him are in the paintings collection. The oil painting of Mehmed II done by the palace painter Fausto Zonaro on the order of Sultan Abdülhamid II in 1907 is one of the collection’s most important pieces; it is a copy of the portrait of Mehmed II done in 1480 by the famed Italian painter Gentile Bellini who the sultan had invited to the palace. Mehmed is known to have personally posed for Bellini’s painting (currently housed in the National Gallery in London) which is why it is such a realistic depiction of the sultan’s facial features. The tradition of depicting the Ottoman dynasty as a whole in a single picture began in the time of Sultan Murad III (r. 1574-95) and gave a new direction and impetus to the development of sultan portraiture. The first historical text to thus depict the Ottoman sultans as a group-a genre known as “şemâilnâme” or “book of characteristics”-was the “Kıyâfetü’l-insâniye fî şemâ’ilü’l-Osmâniye” (Human Characteristics in the Characteristics of the Ottomans), prepared in the second half of the 16th century. The aim in the preparation of this work was to show the sultans therein depicted in a realistic and true-to-life manner. With this aim in mind, the Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Pasha ordered a series of oil portraits from the famed contemporary Italian artist Veronese. This series of oil paintings of the Ottoman rulers from Osman I (r. 1299-1324) to Murad III (r. 1574-95) was made in Veronese’s workshop following an examination of historical texts and of European depictions of Ottoman sultans done up to that time. The series is currently housed in the Alte Pinakothek collection in Munich. Another copy of the series, also made in Veronese’s workshop in the 16th century, is currently a part of the Topkapı Palace collection. Among the collection’s portraits of sultans done by Western painters is a group of four portraits dating to the 17th century that show a very different view. These portraits of Mehmed I (r. 1413-21), Murad II (r. 1421-41, 1446-51), Mustafa I (r. 1617-18, 1622-23) and Murad IV (r. 162340) are done on a fabric whose designs are Spanish, giving rise to the idea that they may have been done by a painter of Spanish origin. In the early 18th century, the influence of Western painting in such areas as light and shade and perspective began to appear in the works of Ottoman miniaturists like Levnî, Abdullah Buhârî and Ali Üsküdarî while the transition from miniature painting to painting on canvas occurred in the second half of that century. The earliest examples of large oil portraits in the collection are the portraits of Sultan Mahmud I (r. 1730-54), Sultan Mustafa III (r. 1757-74) and Sultan Abdülhamid I (r.1774-89), all attributed to the palace painter Rafael. The move of Ottoman art from books to canvas is perhaps best represented by two identical portraits of Mustafa III, one executed on paper and the other on canvas. One other Ottoman painter who helped shape pictorial art in the second half of the 18th century was Konstantin Kapıdağlı. Known chiefly as a portraitist, his paintings of Sultan Selim III (r. 1789-1807) are among the collection’s most important examples of art reflecting contemporary portrait tradition. In the painting signed Resm-i Konstantin Kapıdağlı (Painting by Konstantin Kapıdağlı) and dated 1218 (1803 in the Gregorian calendar), the artist depicts the sultan seated in an interior with a rosary in his hand; in this work, Kapıdağlı has clearly distanced himself from the miniature tradition and the accustomed iconography of sultanic portraiture. Another of Konstantin Kapıdağlı’s most important works in the collection is his series of 28 portraits of the Ottoman sultans, commissioned by Selim III and done in gouache on paper between 1804 and 1806. With these portraits-rendered as engravings in 1815 (during the reign of Sultan Mahmud II) by John Young in London, where they were published as an album. Kapıdağlı brought a new understanding to the art of sultanic portraiture: as in the portraits European monarchs, the sultans were here shown standing, half-length and in three-quarter or full frontal profile with highly natural facial expressions. Below each portrait is depicted the accompanying sultan’s victories, conquests or important building commissions. Having become widely known following their printing in an engraved version, Kapıdağlı’s portraits became the model for 19th-century portraits of monarchs and genealogical bust portraits both in the Ottoman Empire and in Europe.

Genealogical portraits are another genre of sultanic portraiture found in the palace collection. In this genre, whose first examples were done in the time of Sultan Abdülhamid I (r. 177489), the portraits of the sultans are found within medallions situated on the branches of a tree; the medallions are connected to one another via branches or ribbons in such a way as to depict each sultan’s lineage. Although the majority of the genealogical portraits made through the second half of the 19th century were anonymous, the Ottoman and Greek texts found on the paintings indicate that they were done by local Istanbul artists. Beginning in the second half of the 18th century, when albums of paintings and engravings became rather widespread, Western painters coming to the empire in the retinues of British, Swedish, Italian, and particularly French ambassadors, on the invitation of the Ottoman palace, or as independent travelers painted portraits of the sultans in great numbers. The rise of the orientalist style in the 19th century led to an increase in Western painters’ interest in Istanbul and in Ottoman life and so the tradition of sultanic portraiture continued during this period as well. Examples from this period housed in the palace collection include Italian painter Fausto Zonaro’s portrait of Sultan Mehmed II, British painter Sir David Wilkie’s portrait of Sultan Abdülmecid, Polish painter Stanislaw Chlebowski’s portrait of Sultan Abdülaziz, Wilhelm Reuter’s portrait of Sultan Mahmud II and Russian-Armenian painter Ivan Aivazovsky’s portrait of Sultan Murad V. Portraits of sultans done on ivory and known as Imperial Depiction (Tasvîr-i Hümâyûn) were another type of portraiture to emerge in the 19th century, beginning in the time of Sultan Mahmud II (r. 1808-39) and continuing until the first half of the 20th century. Among the Ottoman artists who did work in the Imperial Depiction style were Sebuh Manas, Marras, Abdullah, and Antranik. Besides the palace collection’s portraits of sultans, there are also portraits of the sultans’ daughters and wives, of the princes, and of the Mughal emperors of India as well as portraits of intellectuals of the republican period. Additionally, among the portraits of the sultans are found engravings, oil paintings, watercolours, and lithographs of Istanbul done by Western artists who visited the city in the 18th and 19th centuries.