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A Master of Ottoman Miniature

MiniatureAmong all the Ottoman architects, painters, poets and horticulturalists who left their mark on the Tulip Era, the poets Nedim and Seyyid Vehbî and the miniaturist Levnî stand out from all the rest. The spectacular manuscript dating from this era in the early 18th century entitled Surnâme-i Vehbî was written by Seyyid Vehbî and illustrated by Levnî. The book describes the ceremonies and festivities held at Okmeydanę in Istanbul to celebrate the circumcision of the sons of Sultan Ahmed III. These began on 13 September 1720 and continued with processions, displays and feasting for 20 days. Although the book bears the name of its author Vehbî it is Levnî’s miniatures for which it is most valued as both work of art and documentary record of its day. Each of the 137 paintings reflect in vivid detail the costume of the Ottoman court, and contemporary entertainments. Levnî also illustrated two costume albums with miniatures depicting 21 male and 20 female figures, and portraits of the 22 sultans for Dimitri Kandemir’s Ottoman History. Levnî was at the same time a musician and poet who wrote qasides for Sultan Ahmed III (1703-1730) and epic ballads in a new form.

MiniatureLevnî was a pseudonym, meaning lover of colour, and represented in place of a signature by a graceful flower in one corner of his miniature paintings. His real name was Abdülcelil and he came from the city of Edirne, the former Ottoman capital where the court often removed for the summer, and where the rebellion of 1703 which brought Ahmed III to the throne took place. Little is known about his life, but it was after that date that he arrived in Istanbul to spend most of that sultan’s reign as an artist in the palace painting studio or Nakkațhane.The work of Levnî represents the last golden age of Ottoman miniature painting, and the start of a new period in the fields of art and culture. His work is in striking contrast to that of earlier Turkish miniaturists like Sinan Bey, famous for his portrait of Sultan Mehmed II (1451-1481) smelling a rose, Nigârî (d.1572) who painted portraits of Süleyman the Magnificent, Ottoman admiral Barbaros Hayrettin Pața and Selim II, Nakțî (late 16th-early 17th century) who painted portraits of seyhs and scholars for Țakayęk-ę Numaniye, or Lokman Çelebi (d.1601), who illustrated many outstanding manuscripts like the Țehnâme, the Hünernâme, the Selimțahnâme and the Țehințahnâme.

levni3_s.jpg (16980 bytes)Marked western influence can be seen in the move from traditional stylisation to increased realism. There is a new sense of depth and freedom of movement in Levnî’s paintings, and for the first time he lends facial expression to his figures. The love of colour expressed in his own pseudonym can clearly be seen in the way he balances and combines colours in his work. There is a strong sense of light and shade, and his figures are animated. His miniatures are full page plates instead of being fitted between the writing. Although he introduced so much that was original and in many ways a departure from tradition, his paintings remained a celebration of what could be achieved within the context of miniature art in its last great phase. His realism, romanticism and depth can be seen to spectacular effect in, for example, his Young Woman, Woman Smelling a Rose, Young Man, Sultan Osman II on Horseback, the Bostancę, the Page, the Peyk Soldier, and Çengi Dancer. In his Four Slave Girl Musicians there is such a liveliness and sense of joy that we can almost hear the music they are playing.

The last great master of ottoman miniature - Levnî
By Necdet Sakaođlu
Skylife 09/98