Thursday, May 31, 2012

Europe's Favorite Nineteenth Century Turkish Delight

By Stephen J. Gertz

Harem scene.

In 1842, Amadeo Preziosi (1816-1882),  from a noble and wealthy Maltese  family  and a graduate of the Paris Academy of Fine Arts, packed up his paints and brushes and journeyed from Malta to Istanbul, the Gateway to the East and capitol of the Ottoman Empire.

Coffee House.

The lure of the Orient was no less compelling to Preziosi than it was for Eugene Delacroix, Alexandre Decamps,  Eugene Fromentin, and many other painters. European artists, writers, scholars and the simply curious few, entranced by the city's exotic reputation, flocked there. Istanbul was a theme park for tourists, right on Europe's doorstep.

In Sweet Waters, a park along the Bosphorus.

Most artists stayed for a few months, or perhaps a few years, to immerse themselves in Istanbul's vivid daily life, customs, people and architecture. Preziosi visited and never left. He married a Turkish woman of Greek extraction, had four children, and lived comfortably, with a vacation home in the countryside.

In a Bazaar.

Though known for his private commisisons he introduced his Istanbul to the European public at large with his extravagantly beautiful series of chromolithographs Stamboul Souvenir d'Orient (Lemercier, 1858, reissued by Lemercier in 1861, and published in a second edition by Lemercier in 1865). Containing twenty-eight stunning plates, a fine copy of the second edition has just some into the marketplace.

Turkish Ladies Walking.

Preziosi "notes in his memoirs that his original intention had been to stay for two years, but so absorbed did he become in the sights and bewitching atmosphere of this city that it held him like a magnet, and he hardly noticed the passing of the years. Sketchbook under arm he wandered its streets, caught up in an increasing love for the city and its people. Istanbul returned Preziosi’s affection, and he was welcomed everywhere, in tiny back street shops, coffee houses, hamams (Turkish baths), and places of worship. In his canvases he immortalised the humdrum sights of daily life: a street seller, a dancing bear, a woman filling her water jar at a street fountain. Through his eyes we also see the blue waters of the Bosphorus with caiques gliding along, pavilions and palaces. His paintings sold well among local and foreign customers alike, who hung them on the walls of their grand houses and palaces" (A Maltese Painter Of Istanbul Scenes: Amadeo Preziosi).

Mevlevi Dervish.

French art historian and critic Victor Champier (1851-1929), in his Forward to the third edition, retitled  Stamboul, Moeurs et Costumes (Canson: 1883), wrote of Preziosi and Istanbul:

"Istanbul… This word sounds to the ear like a battle cry or a song of victory. Istanbul is the name given by the Turks to this glorious city, once known as Byzantium and today also as Constantinople. It is Istanbul, with its winding streets, markets, picturesque excursion places and curious sights, whose life and true substance Monsieur Amadeo Preziosi presents to us in his watercolours. Certainly one rarely encounters an artist who has left his homeland at a young age, and made a home for himself in the bosom of a civilization little known even in Europe. This is an artist whose eyes have been rinsed in the splendid light of the Orient, enabling him to capture the depth of its meaning and enjoy the happiness of sensing the strength and capacity of its spirit."

Druggist's Shop.

From the 15th through the 18th centuries, Turquerie was an Orientalist style imitative of Turkish culture and art. Increased diplomatic and commercial ties to the Ottoman Empire, Turkey its center, created a passionate fascination with Eastern exoticism. An English translation of The Arabian Nights appeared in 1706 and stoked the fire. By the nineteenth century, Romantic Orientalism had developed into a distinct literary genre with writers such as Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley captivated by the  region's perceived sensuous rhythms and color. The mysteries of veiled women and the harem stirred the senses. Europe's fascination with the Orient would continue to grow throughout the century.

Given this attraction, with its distinct sensual undercurrent, which Preziosi so keenly captured in his portraits of the women of Istanbul (featured in over half of the chomolithographs), it is no surprise that a genre of erotic literature developed to satisfy the European man's desire to learn what went on behind the harem's doors when the veils were removed. Thus The Lustful Turk (1828) and  A Night in a Moorish Harem (c. 1900), bookends to the height of Europe's fascination and grand amour for the exotic Orient and the Muslim world.

The West's distorted perspective of the Orient wrought by the Romantics haunts our relations with the East to this day.

PREZIOSI, [Amadeo]. Stamboul. Souvenir D'Orient. Paris: Imp. Lemercier, 1865. Second edition. Folio. Tinted pictorial title page, engraved list of plates, twenty-eight (28) chromolithographed plates mounted on card.

Bobins III, 1098. Blackmer 1353. Cf. Atabey 999 (1861). Cf. Colas 2422 (1858). Cf. Lipperheide 1440 (1858, 1861).

Images courtesy of Shapero Rare Books, currently offering this item, with our thanks.

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