1. On the road
Alberto Pasini (1826–1899), Mercato a Constantinopoli: A busy market in the courtyard of the New Mosque, Constantinople. Oil on canvas. 51 1/4 x 41 3/8 in. (130 x 105 cm.). Estimate: £700,000-1,000,000. This work is offered in the 19th Century European & Orientalist Art sale at Christie’s London on 15 December
In the 19th century, ‘Orientalism’ thrived — the term coined by academics to describe works by writers, designers and artists from the West that imitated or depicted aspects of Middle Eastern, South Asian, African and East Asian cultures.
Of all of the Italian Orientalist artists, Alberto Pasini (1826-1899) was amongst the most important and well-travelled, enjoying success in both his own country and in France, where he spent much of his time, having moved there to study in 1851.
In 1855 Pasini joined a French expedition to the Near East, travelling as part of the entourage of French Minister Nicolas Prosper Bourée. Travelling through Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the Persian Gulf and Tehran, he developed his distinctive style and discovered the mode of painting that would become his tour de force — Orientalism.
The trip was to be one of many that Pasini undertook to the Near and Middle East, where he was captivated by colours and light. Unlike many of his contemporaries — who created Orientalist paintings in Paris studios from secondary accounts or using arranged studio props — Pasini painted from life.
Pasini became intimately familiar with the city of Constantinople, visiting it often. An extended visit in 1867 was prompted by an invitation from his old friend Bourée, now French ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and by a need to find new pictorial material. The trip would form the basis for Pasini’s core output for years to come, with the city’s colourful, energetic markets being a favourite subject.
2. Bearing fruit
Detail of market scene with melons
Pasini excelled at painting busy scenes of everyday life, of which Mercato a Constantinopoli is an outstanding example. Here he shows the turmoil of the street market held at the foot of the steps of the mosque, partly in the shade of a traditional çınar, or oriental plane tree.
The foreground of the painting is populated by picturesque fruit vendors, selling their wares, some from the traditional portable tripod stand (sehpa) and tray (tabla) set up under large parasols, to a mixed crowd. ‘The women’s faces, in the Istanbul manner, are scarcely concealed by their thin veils,’ observes renowned Orientalist scholar Charles Newton. ‘These assiduous shoppers carry distinctive and fashionable little parasols. Each figure is carefully observed.’
The scene must be set in midsummer, as the huge green watermelons (karpuz), the smaller, scented melons (kavun) and white grapes are shown in abundance. ‘Until recently,’ Newton explains, ‘a slightly surreal indicator of the season in rural Turkey was the sight of the streets in the evening filled with men, each with a large watermelon under one arm, returning home from the markets with a treat for their families.’
Everywhere women are bargaining, some examining a watermelon by tapping it gently to see if it is ripe. On the right, near a Turkoman carpet seller, some particularly hard bargaining is going on between a determined fruit seller and a sceptical woman. Another tradesman seems to be selling loaves of bread. Some vendors hold aloft their wares, while others wait patiently for a decision to be made.
3. Street food
Detail of dogs and carriage
At the far right of the picture, there is an exhausted hamal , or market porter, sleeping with his head resting on his saddle-like carrying pad. To the left of the picture, as we see above, is a kebab seller, knife in hand, with a charcoal stove precariously balanced on his tabla. In the foreground are the famous street dogs, tolerated in the city as scavengers until the early days of the republic. To the left, an elaborate red-painted carriage is passing, perhaps bearing a member of the Imperial family.
4. Architectural lines
Pasini’s detail of the Mosque (left) and (right) the Yemi Cami, or New Mosque, today © OPIS Zagreb / Shutterstock.com
During his 1867 visit to Constantinople, Pasini created numerous studies in oil and pencil that he would use as source material on his return to Paris. He paid particular attention to the architecture, painting the Yeni Cami (or New Mosque) — a focal point of life in the city — from several angles, evidently impressed by its sober, almost Neoclassical lines.
Located on the southern bank of the Golden Horn, near the foot of the Galata Bridge, the Yeni Cami was well-known to European travellers, especially after the Crimean War (1853-1856) when restrictions on Christians entering certain mosques were lifted.
Here, the artist’s careful rendering of the southern façade contrasts with the ramshackle buildings visible beyond the wall in the background. However, as Newton notes, ‘Pasini always included a colourful knot of human beings to give some life to what might otherwise be a dry academic architectural study.’
Pasini in his Paris studio, Rue Chaptal 30
By 1870, Pasini’s reputation as one of the greatest Orientalist painters was assured. He had exhibited at the Salon — the work featured here was a great success there in 1874 — participated in the Exposition universelle and the Venice Biennale and been awarded the Legion of Honour. ‘The pleasure in looking at Pasini’s work,’ Newton says, ‘is derived from the obvious fact that he enjoyed painting accurately the contrast between the austere and elegant nature of the architectural stonework and the lively colour-filled exuberance of the Sultan’s Ottoman subjects and their everyday life.’
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