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How Osman Hamdi Changed an Empire’s Outlook on Arts

There is no doubt that Osman Hamdi had a great impact on the art scene of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century. In this article, we will analyze how one artist changed a whole empire’s impression of art forever.

Education in Paris

Osman Hamdi’s father Ibrahim Edhem was one of the first students that Sultan Mahmud II sent to study abroad under his supervision. He studied in Paris at École des Mines and became the first mining engineer of the Ottoman Empire. So, it was no surprise that after his son Osman Hamdi completed his education in Istanbul, Ibrahim Edhem Pasha sent him to study in Paris just like he had done when he was younger. Osman Hamdi was a law student but he quickly became interested in arts and archeology. After completing law school, Osman Hamdi decided to pursue his interest in arts, taking classes from famous orientalist painters like Jean-Léon Gérôme and Gustave Boulanger.

Imperial Museum

After completing his education in Paris, Osman Hamdi returned to Istanbul. He worked many government jobs before quitting to focus on his art. In 1881, he was assigned as the curator of the Imperial Museum by Sultan Abdulhamid II.

Osman Hamdi saw that compared to the museums in Paris, the Imperial Museum was very small and unkempt. He regretted that arts and archeology were so neglected by the Ottomans, taking it upon himself to educate people and make them appreciate art more.

The first thing he did was to make sure the archeological findings excavated from Ottoman soil would remain in the Ottoman Empire. In the past, foreign archeologists were free to take what they found with them to their own countries. The Sultans would sometimes even gift historical artifacts to foreign kings and royalty. Osman Hamdi thought that this was a mistake and that these artifacts should be taken to Istanbul to be exhibited in the Imperial Museum. In 1884, he introduced the “Asar-ı Atika” regulations which remained the only set of antiquities laws the Ottoman Empire, and later Turkiye, had until 1973.

He also did many excavations himself with the help of locals. Some of his most famous discoveries were the Commagene tomb-sanctuaries on Mount Nemrut and the Alexander Sarcophagus from Sidon. He managed to transport all of his findings to Istanbul with the help of locals around the villages near the historical sites.

Soon, the Imperial Museum became insufficient in containing all the artifacts Osman Hamdi had excavated, so he asked architect Alexandre Vallaury to design a new building for the museum. This became the first building of the Istanbul Archeological Museums complex. Two more units were added as the museum collection got bigger and bigger throughout the years.

Today, the main building of the Istanbul Archeological Museum stands as one of the most beautiful examples of neoclassical architecture in Istanbul and houses over a million artifacts.

Academy of Fine Arts

In the Ottoman Empire, the most popular arts were calligraphy, decorative arts, and miniature drawing. Figure drawing or sculpting did not yet exist. Even painters like Şeker Ahmet Pasha who received his education in Europe avoided painting figures and stuck to sceneries and still-lives.

Osman Hamdi, on the other hand, adored drawing figures. His work always included figures in the foreground as the main focus of the painting. He often employed himself and his children as his models and used various photographs as references to create the scenes he desired to paint. He was the pioneer of figure drawing in the Ottoman Empire.

In 1882, Osman Hamdi founded the Academy of Fine Arts, known today as the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts, to teach young artists the methods used by Western artists. He hired European artists to teach classes such as anatomy, sculpting, and architecture.

When the academy first opened, only male students were accepted. After Osman Hamdi’s death in 1914, another academy for women was established. In 1926, the two institutions merged and the Academy of Fine Arts started accepting students of both sexes.

Some of Osman Hamdi’s Paintings

1- Mihrab

Mihrab depicts a woman with her head uncovered, sitting on a bookrest typically used for Quran with copies of the Quran and the Bible scattered around her feet and her back facing the mihrab (niche on a mosque wall indicating the direction of Mecca). Some think that this painting symbolizes the status of women in society and the holy books scattered at her feet symbolize the religious doctrines preventing women from being independent. Another theory is that it shows how Osman Hamdi places women and motherhood above religious doctrines.

This painting caused a lot of uproar in the conservative part of the population. At the time, women covered every inch of their bodies with fabric before going out of the house; they were not allowed to perform on stage and were almost never depicted in artworks, so to paint a woman in such a way was certainly a bold choice on Osman Hamdi’s part.

2- The Tortoise Trainer

The Tortoise Trainer is unarguably Osman Hamdi’s most famous painting and yet, the message behind it is still unknown. In the painting, you see the trainer looking at the tortoises with compassion in his eyes. Tortoises are slow and impossible to train yet the trainer is patient with them.

A popular theory about this painting is that the trainer is Osman Hamdi himself and the tortoises symbolize the government and society. Osman Hamdi is trying to achieve the impossible by trying to teach society the importance of the arts. It is a slow and painstaking process but Osman Hamdi is determined.

There are two copies of the painting — one painted in 1906 and the other in 1907. You can see the 1906 version in the Pera Museum!

It took years of work and lots of patience to where we are today and we still have a long way to go. Osman Hamdi did all he could to make people appreciate art more and we could do the same. But for now, this was the story of how one artist changed an entire empire’s outlook on arts.

Cited Works:


Istanbul Archeological Museums,

Islamic art under European influence and contemporary trends. Britannica,

Caner, E. (2008). The Tortoise Trainer



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