When your eyes fall on to The Scholar painted by Osman Hamdi Bey in 1878, your pupils will start to catch the contrast of multi-pigmented colors developing the scene in front of you. First there is the young scholar with his head in the books. His bright coral green Ottoman dressing plays in contrast to the tapestry he’s currently laying his belly on. Strong elbow posture, he keep his head up and his eyes looking down as his other hand supports his chin in a realistic position. Through this we can see Osman Hamdi Bey’s teachings in France with is time wondering with Jean-Léon Jérôme with the close detail to the hands and feet. The autonomy of the human figure is very realistic and believable. His right hand props up his chin, his eyes looking down on the page, while his left hand has the pointer finger directing to the line his eyes are reading. Portrays this message of calm and transcribing the text. The body is interested by the words and serenely takes in the information. There is no stressful undertone to the body’s language.
That’s when you notice the buckle on the book, what kind of reading is this? Or was this the fashion of binding books? What if it’s his journal and the lad is reading up on his notes of the day. Focusing away from the young lad studiously reading away, our eyes let us focus on the space. The corner of the room, or niche, can be indicated by the product of shadowing on the Western Iranian candlestick, indicated by its light hue design of the coral fabric. Depicting a set design with pink areas holding floral patterning while the lightest shade of green has white delicate floral in its center fold framing.
The shadowing is coming from the right side of the painting, and it is indicated by the light source on the central focus coming into view, but it’s also the focal point and main subject on the painting, the young scholar with his head in the book. The shadowing produced is found on the book it’s self by the hovering head darkening the right corner of the last page. With the candlestick – the shadow prevails on the left side, with also the shadowing of the end indicator between the scholar’s bench and the candle. The half floral ending bench piece shadows also on to the candle. Now focusing on the rich Ottoman styled tapestry below the man. It reminds you of a tallish carpet from the 19th century, but there isn’t a rectangle of blue to perceive a tranquil body of water, instead there are geometric shapes woven into the design. Diamonds shapes, triangles and squares make up the zig-zag design and star-like quality that builds the tapestry with rich blood-orange undertones, egg-shell white, dark teals, grass green, golden yellows, but more brown than yellow. There is also the ocean blue that helps tie the designed tapestry.
Retrieving back to the space/room, the hexagonal titles of turquoise form the wall in Ottoman architectural design with an over-lapping orange and black design both above and below the Arabic text that is inscribed on the wall. The turquoise tiles have been seen in the Tiled Pavilion on the grounds of the Topkapi Saray in the Yesil Çami (Green Mosque) in Bursa.
The wall niche that contains two more books is designed like a mosque dome with the cinched bottom expanding out as it goes further up. These types of niches can be seen in 17th century Twin Pavilions in the Topkapi palace. Ending at the top with a perfect pointed dome that symbolizes the Iranian heritage of Osman Hamdi Bey.Funnily enough ” The Great Dictionary” is one of the books seen in the niche for it’s inscribed Qamus, which means Dictionary in Arabic, which refers to “ al-Firuzabadi’s al-Qamus al-Muhit”. [Fun fact is presented from the Sotheby’s The Scholar article, second paragraph] Osman Hamdi Bey’s unique style does, and most definitely derives from his teachings in France.
In his lessons, Hamdi Bey learned the use of a focal point and projecting the main subject in a structure of space. The European influence on Osman Hamdi Bey can be mostly exemplified in the simplistic setting of the visual and scholarly subject of the painting. White Osman Hamdi Bey’s paintings present the Western onlooker the unbiased and natural portrait of the Islamic society. The depiction of the clam human behavior in a religious setting challenges the status quo of the social and religious aspects of the Islamic world. Osman Hamdi Bey has an oriental artists opened the door to Middle Eastern realism representation. Taking the European implications of realistic artistic style, Hamdi Bey provided the reality of the Middle Eastern World with its influences. The two intertwine in Osman Hamdi Bey’s depiction of his home society.
Personally, when I look to this painting, I see something far more unique than his other paintings. There is a political message to it like all Osman Hamdi Bey paintings, but there is a larger structure to the painting than simply a corner with a young intellectual reading his text for class. Observers of this painting can identify with the figure, look back on their days of academia, and reminisce of all that they’ve learned in life. If I have learned anything from years of lessons in art history is that there is a component of relationship to the subject and observer that opens the door to multiple interpretations. How I relate to the man in the frame doing his readings for his classes, steams from myself in this moment in time; a student willing and wanting to learn more.
As Ahmet Ersoy said in The Poetics and Politics of Place: Ottoman Istanbul and British Orientalism, “ Despite remaining elusive in their deployment of temporal markers, these paintings never the less sustained a fundamental sense of historicity for viewers attuned to the Romanic sensibilities of late Ottoman Culture.” (148) and why say this in the context of The Scholar is that, during this era, the Ottoman Empire was all about trying to stand out as an individual state. The temporal markers and historical views are seen with the utmost clarity in this painting by Osman Hamdi Bey, and with it the sense of uniqueness. The appreciation of romanticism by the Ottomans is what set the course of evolving the modernity in the community, and viewers of this painting can feel it – the romance of the Middle East is largely conveyed in the subject of a young scholar.