Monday, September 29, 2014

Turquerie, Orientalism and Coffee

Carle Van Loo, Sultane (Mme de Pompadour portrayed as a Turkish lady), 1747
(Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris)

Today is International Coffee Day, a day for the celebration and enjoyment of the sine qua non of our morning rituals. While most people might be celebrating this auspicious occasion by enjoying the complimentary cup of coffee offered by their friendly neighborhood cafe or the most convenient Dunkin Donuts, I have been thinking more along the lines of the use of coffee in exotic constructions of "the other" in European painting. The first example that came to my mind was the image of Madame de Pompadour portrayed as a Turkish Lady, Sultane, painted by Carle Van Loo for her chateau at Bellevue, along with two other paintings displaying her occupied with pursuits associated with the Turkish harem in the French imagination, Two Odalisques Embroidering and An Odalisque Playing a Stringed Instrument (lost).

Amedee Van Loo, Le Dejeuner de la Sultane (Sultana's Luncheon), 1783
(Musee Cheret, Nice)
These paintings were made for the royal mistress's personal bedroom, a chambre a la turque within the Bellevue. Considering the sensual nature of their position, images of the seraglio being associated with the royal mistress is considered to be quite natural by many scholars. It is argued that in these paintings, Madame Pompadour, linking her image with the Sultana in the Turkish harem, is supposed to be reinforcing her assertive role within the court and in the King's personal life, "presiding over the king's pursuits and pastimes, always with his confidence and trust."1 Although the relationship of the Ottoman Sultan with his consorts is a complex one that is hard to define by Western standards, there were examples of very powerful queen mothers and favorites who reached out to even foreign leaders.

Kahve Keyfi (Enjoying Coffee), First half of 18th century
(Pera Museum)
While Madame de Pompadour is portrayed as a single figure being attended by a single servant, there are a whole retinue of attendants surrounding the figure of the Sultane in Le Dejeuner de la Sultane painted as one of four tapestry cartoons by Amedee Van Loo in 1783. Although it has been assumed for many years to be Madame du Barry, Louis XV's next mistress, the patron of the commission for Le Costume Turc, series tapestry cartoons, seems to be a little ambiguous. Some scholars argue that the Sultana's face recalls the royal mistress. Comparing Amedee Van Loo's series, Le Costume Turc with the one his uncle Carle Van Loo painted for marquise de Pompadour is studied as the height and decline of turquerie. 2 Ever since the Turks left their coffee behind after the siege of Vienna in the 16th century, coffee-drinking had become a popular activity in Europe.  Having one's portrait painted being served coffee was a sign of rank and luxury. 3 The French interest in coffee and the Turkish culture in particular was related to the two embassies the Ottoman Sultan sent to France in 1721 and 1742.  The arrival of Mehmet Celebi sent by Sultan Ahmet III. in 1721 as an ambassodor to Louis XV's court caused quite a stir in Paris society, causing the start of turquerie. It is reported that the Parisian elite would rent windows looking out onto the streets to watch the Ottoman delegation pass through on their way to and from the palace.  The ritual of drinking coffee, which is a natural as breathing to Turks, was another activity they watched with fascination.

Jean-Baptiste Vanmour, Women Drinking Coffee, First half of 18th century

(Pera Museum)

Jean-Baptiste Vanmour who lived in the Ottoman capital from 1699 until his death in 1737 working with the French and later the Dutch ambassadors, created some of the most reliable depictions of Ottoman people and interiors. Since he was part of an embassy, he got to experience the rituals of the palace firsthand. Although he would still not be allowed inside a harem (the section of the house devoted to females) Vanmour's paintings show realistic interiors and women.

John Frederick Lewis, The Cofeebearer, 1857

European artists' fascination with Constantinople and the Orient was an ongoing phenomenon that culminated in Orientalism in art. Canvases of Western artists, depicted their fantasies of throngs of women, lounging about, sometimes naked, waiting for the pleasure of one man.  Those who visited came back with props, sketches and memories of exotic lands and strange people, those who did not, relied on accessories, costume books and travel memoirs. The dainty coffee cup became one of the most iconic props used by Orientalist. 

Daniel Valentine Riviere, Phanariot Greek Ladies, mid 19th century
(Pera Museum)
As artists traveled and experienced the Orient personally, they began to create remarkably beautiful works of art with intricate details and bright, illuminated colors. The scenery, architectural details, the costumes were all rendered meticulously with fairytale like, dreamy protagonists. The Orientalists' attention to detail and obsession with beauty was quite similar to the PreRaphaelites except this time brunettes were at center stage instead of redheads.

John Frederick Lewis, Harem life, Constantinople, 1857

And so, our daily cup of coffe went down in history as something rare and exotic, a thing of beauty... 

Osman Hamid Bey, Kahve Ocagi (Coffee stove), 1879
(Private Collection)


1 Stein, Perrin. “Madame de Pompadour and the Harem Imagery at Bellevue.” Gazette
 des Beaux Arts, Vol. 123, (January 1994), pp. 29-44.
Stein, Perrin. "Amedee Van Loo's Costume turc: The French Sultana." The Art Bulletin, Vol. 78, Bi, 3 (Sep., 1996), pp.417-438.
3 Ibid., p. 427

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