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 owing to its portraits of the sultans, containing 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 engravings, oil paintings, watercolors, and paintings on ivory.

No Ottoman sultan commissioned a portrait prior to Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1444–46, 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 organization of palace craftsmen (ehl-i hıref)—an organization of which all palace craftsmen were members—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 or 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—which allowed them to paint more realistic portraits of the sultans.