this article, we will take a look at one of Osman Hamdi Bey’s most controversial paintings, “Mihrap”, also called “Genesis”. Made in 1901, the work is exhibited for the first time in the same year in Berlin, and later to be presented at the Royal Academy Exhibition in London in 1903.
The large painting depicts a young woman sitting on a “rahle” (a support for reading the Quran), with her back to the mihrap, the niche facing Mecca, the holy place of Islam. The young woman, who is pregnant, wears a yellow dress whose cut is not medieval but from the 19th century. Manuscripts and books appear at her feet, including Zend-i-Avesta, the holy book of the Zoroastrians, and the Quran. The artist’s signature appears on one of the books at the young woman’s feet. Note that the support for
The Quran and the candlestick that appear in the painting can still be seen today in the current Museum of Islamic Art in Istanbul, located inside the former Saray, which once belonged to Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha (1494–1536).
For some, this picture would be a replica of a painted sculpture called Tanagra made in 1890 by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Not a few have considered this painting blasphemous, but nothing in the life and other works of Osman Hamdi Bey supports this statement. Although a staunch supporter of Tanzimat, an ideology of Westernization presented in the Islamic world, whose representatives included Grand Vizier Midhat Pasha and the artist’s father, Ibrahim Edhem Pasha, Osman Hamdi Bey had repeatedly expressed his adherence to and respect for the Islamic religion as well as Ottoman values.
Yes, he believed, the Empire was in dire need of Western infrastructure and institutions to survive in the nineteenth century, but all of this had to be adapted to national specifics.
Starting from these ideas of the painter — expressed as explicitly as possible in his correspondence with his father, written in French -the art historian Edhem Eldem, a descendant of Osman Hamdi Bey, came up with a much more plausible explanation. For him, the young pregnant lady is a personification of a Turkey (and, by extension, of the Ottoman Empire) that turns its back on the past and looks to the future.
According to some, the model is a young Armenian woman, the daughter of the maid of the painter’s second wife, Marie / Naile Hanim. But historian Edhem Eldem says the model is none other than one of Osman Hamdi Bey’s daughters, Layla (born 1880), who was pregnant during the painting. She gave birth to a baby girl, Nimet, on May 1, 1902, when the painting was already completed. This task seems to signify a fruitfulness that will come with a better future, which Osman Hamdi Bey most sincerely wished for all the peoples of the Empire.
In fact, Osman Hamdi Bey’s attitude towards religion is very reverent, both in landscapes such as the one depicting the “Settlements founded by Çoban Mustafa Pasha,” which included a mosque, a madrassah (theological school) and a canteen (painting made between 1880–1890), as well as portraits such as “Young Emir Studying” (painting made in the early twentieth century) or “Theologian” (man reading the Quoran, early twentieth century), but also “Debate at the door mosque ”, work from 1891.