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The Celebrated Ottoman Painter

seker-ahmet_s.jpg (7383 bytes)Westernization affected every facet of Ottoman Turkish society in the 19th century, including art. Two great painters of this area were Osman Hamdi Bey and Şeker Ahmet Paşa. The latter received this art training at military college, and became one of several outstanding military painters. His nickname Şeker, meaning sugar, was acquired on account of his kindly and cheerful personality which won him universal affection, and he had a wide circle of friends who included some of the most eminent men in the empire.

He entered the Medical Collage in Istanbul in 1855 and soon proved so talented at art that he was appointed assistant art teacher, but this interest in medicine dwindled and he resolved to become a painter. In pursuit of this ambition he entered the Military Academy, where art was an important part of the curriculum. The students were taught not only cartography and technical drawing, but also painting as an invaluable skill in the days before photography became widespread. Like all the military artists of his time he went on to teach at the same institution.

The late 19th century was a dynamic period for art in Istanbul, as westernization brought radical cultural and social changes. Western style art education was introduced in both military and civil schools, and large numbers of foreign painters came to Istanbul.

The paintings of Şeker Ahmet Paşa attracted the attention of Sultan Abdülaziz (1860-1876), who sent him to Paris to study art at the Ottoman School which was attended by Turkish military cadets. He subsequently entered the Academy of Fine Arts, where he worked under the orientalist painters Gustave Boulanger and Jean Leon Gérome. When Sultan Abdülaziz paid a state visit to Paris he asked Şeker Ahmet Paşa to purchase paintings for Dolmabahçe and Çırağan palaces. In consultation with Gérome Şeker Ahmet Paşa formed the first major collection of western art in Turkey.

After returning to Istanbul in 1871 he was appointed painting teacher at the Technical College in Sultanahmet. He organized the first art exhibition ever held in Istanbul in 1873, showing the work of both Turkish and foreign artists. They included Saib Efendi, Mesud Bey and Madame and Monsieur Guillemet. The exhibition was visited by the elite of Istanbul, including the grand vezir and the sultan’s son Yusuf İzzeddin Efendi, and the event was widely covered in the press. As a result interest in art among intellectuals and wealthy merchants reached a peak. Encouraged by its success Şeker Ahmet Paşa organized a second exhibition which opened at Istanbul University on 1 July 1875. This exhibition included work by Osman Hamdi, Halil Paşa and Nuri Bey, Le Turquie newspaper reported on 22 July 1875, The entrance charge is two piastres. Children and students of state schools wearing uniform are half price. Trams go as far as the gate, which is next to the Tomb of Sultan Mahmud, at the second stop past the bridge.

Pierre Desire Guillemet, who was serving as court painter at the time, opened the first art school in Beyoğlu, known as the Academy of Design and Painting. Many exhibitions of work by the artists who studied here were held , and together with those organized by Şeker Ahmet Paşa aroused increasing public interest.

Like many of the 19th century Turkish painters Şeker Ahmet Paşa was influenced by the classicist and romantic styles during his stay in Paris, and on his return it was these movements which he introduced to Turkey. His paintings and particularly his landscapes reflect a deep love of nature, and human figures appear as insignificant elements, almost crushed under the overwhelming grandeur of nature.

Şeker Ahmet Paşa’s own passion for nature and power of observation are evident in his landscapes and still-lifes, in which he makes masterful use of the contrast between light and shade. He lends volume to forms with measured control, and applies the painted figures unless as tiny accessories designed to stress nature’s own splendid scale.

Paintings he did before going to Europe, such as Castle on the Hill and Soldiers on Parade are native and expose his deficient artistic knowledge. But while in Paris, under the influence of Courbet, he developed this naive approach, as we see for example in his Landscape with forest and Deer.

Şeker Ahmet Paşa paved the way for the establishment of the state academy of fine arts in Istanbul and spread appreciation of western style painting through the exhibitions he organized and his own work. He also played a key role in the transition from traditional Turkish miniature to modern painting.

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Şeker Ahmet Paşa
By Duygu Durgun