Mosques in the 18th and 19th Century Paintings

12 March 2018

In the works of western painters, we encounter mosques as the primary architectural elements that reflect the identity of the city of Istanbul. Often we can recognize the depicted landscape as Istanbul simply from the mosques. Even when the details do not match the reality, the mosques that have been occasionally illustrated with exaggerated features in the horizon or by the sea inform us that the setting is indisputably Istanbul. In the paintings of daily life an intriguing contrast is established for the western painter when these majestic monuments that are meant to display the power of the empire are presented alongside the people on the street. The details captured from the architecture of a mosque, for instance if it is in one of the paintings of an orientalist such as Osman Hamdi, can be the most valuable resource in recreating traditional Ottoman sites.

We have prepared a selection for you from the sceneries found in the Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation Orientalist Painting Collection!

The Ambassadorial Procession, Jean Baptiste Vanmour, (1725 ?), Oil on canvas, 88,5 x 120,5 cm.


The painting depicts the passage of a European ambassadorial delegation, escorted by Ottoman dignitaries, along the hills of the Pera district of Istanbul. The ambassador, who has been placed in a quasi-central position in the foreground, is seen riding a white horse near Galata Cemetery. This painting is part of a series by Vanmour, part of this exhibition, depicting the phases of the reception of the same ambassador. The ambassador depicted in this series could be the Venetian Bailo Francesco Gritti, who served in Istanbul between 1723 and 1726. In the foreground there is a company of janissaries, on the left a group of people watching the procession, while in the background Golden Horn covered with sailing-boats, Süleymaniye Mosque and Bozdoğan Aqueduct are visible. On the bottom left corner a signature on a stone is visible: Vanmour pinxit.


A European in Turkish Costume, Antoine de Favray (?), Between 1762-1771, Oil on Canvas, 84 x 68 cm.
The costume of the model in this unidentified half length portrait is very similar to the one worn by the French Ambassador Gravier’s Turkish costume in his portrait who was  Favray’s first patron in Istanbul. But their physiognomies are different. In the background a landscape with a mosque is seen through a window behind the model. The mosque with four minarets is reminiscent of the Saint Sophia and a domed building on the left may possibly be a depiction of Sainte Eirene close by.


View of İstanbul, Edmund Berninger, Last quarter of the 19th century, Watercolor on paper, 38 x 28 cm.


Berninger had the opportunity to visit İstanbul and observe the architectural monuments and the people of the city firsthand. Therefore, it is quite possible that he created this painting later, based on the sketches he made and the notes he took during his stay in the city. The architectural details and the environs of the mosque, which is placed at the center of the composition and should technically represent Süleymaniye due to its location in the city, are not realistic. Nonetheless, the artist succeeds in creating a convincing image of İstanbul by bringing together the city’s topography, architecture, and various aspects of its life. Berninger has a very similar painting in oil, in which he depicts the cityscape of İstanbul from a panoramic perspective. All the details of the watercolor are used identically in the oil painting; the composition has been expanded by the addition of a second mosque to the right, and the street with the fountain at the foreground is moved to the right and centered.


Yıldız (Hamidiye) Mosque, Émile de L’isle-Adam Villiers, Between 1886 and 1889, Watercolor on paper, 46 x 67 cm.

Although he is regarded as an Orientalist painter, Osman Hamdi Bey’s perception of the East is remarkably different his Western counterparts. As opposed to the Western Orientalists who emphasize sexuality in their female figures, in Osman Hamdi Bey’s paintings the female figures are often conscious of the period of Westernization in the Ottoman Empire, as well as their individual identities and talents, and are thus open to learning and self-development. In a number of Osman Hamdi Bey’s works, the Ottoman woman is portrayed while playing an instrument, reading, or arranging the flowers in her house and she always appears fully clothed. In this painting, which incorporates architectural elements of the Bursa Green Mosque, apart from musical instruments like the tambur (lute) and the tambourine, Ottoman decorative elements such as rugs, woodwork, stone carving, and tiles complement the artist’s unique approach to the female identity.

Two Musician Girls, Osman Hamdi Bey, 1880, Oil on canvas, 58 x 39 cm.

In this painting, the artist portrays the Yıldız Mosque, which was commissioned by Sultan Abdülhamid II and completed in 1886, together with a view of the city in the background. Villiers, who is thought to have stayed in the city for some time between 1886 and 1889 and died in 1889, has various other paintings of İstanbul and. The collection of the İstanbul Museum of Painting and Sculpture includes another watercolor by Villiers, which features the same theme. In that particular painting, which Villiers created from the same angle, he leaves less room for the view of the city in the background, approaches further to the Mosque, and places local figures in front of it. His painting featured in the exhibition; however, emphasizes the location of the mosque dominating the view of the city. It is possible that these careful and realistic depictions of the Yıldız Mosque, which the Sultan had just recently commissioned, created with the intention of presenting them to the palace.

Istanbul’s Historical Peninsula in 18th and 19th Century Paintings

Istanbul’s Historical Peninsula in 18th and 19th Century Paintings

With the Topkapı Palace, the center of political authority until the 19th century, and many other examples of classical Ottoman and Byzantine architecture included in its premise the Historical Peninsula is the heart of the Empire. 

The Golden Horn

The Golden Horn

When regarding the paintings of Istanbul by western painters, Golden Horn has a distinctive place and value. This body of water that separates the Topkapı Palace and the Historical Peninsula, in which monumental edifices are located, from Galata, where westerners and foreign embassies dwell, is as though an interpenetrating boundary.

Bosphorus at the Orientalist Paintings

Bosphorus at the Orientalist Paintings

The Bosphorus, which divides the city from north to south, separates two continents, renders Istanbul distinct for western painters, offers the most picturesque spectacles for western artists.