How Antoine-Ignace Melling conquered Constantinople — then became the darling of Paris
After two decades working as a ‘kind of artistic director in residence’ at the Ottoman court, Melling tapped into the Parisian craze for turquerie by producing watercolours based on his experiences. One of them is offered in Paris on 22 March
Some time around the turn of the 19th century, Antoine-Ignace Melling fell mysteriously out of favour at the Ottoman court. Although of French origin, he was a long-time resident of Constantinople, and had served for several years as imperial architect to the sultan, Selim III, and his half-sister, Sultana Hatice.
As Melling lamented in a letter to the sultana, ‘Your Highness, on Saturday, I, your humble servant, sent my manservant to collect my monthly salary. They told him it has been stopped... After seeing so much kindness from Your Highness, I could not believe this order came from you… Winter is coming… The landlord wants the rent… I entreat you, I’ve been left without a coin to my name… Your Highness, I implore you not to abandon me.’
It’s true that Napoleon’s recent invasion of Egypt had created anti-French sentiment in Ottoman palace circles. The real reason for the withdrawal of Melling’s salary, though, was probably the fall-out from an ill-fated love affair he is rumoured to have had with Sultana Hatice.
When she failed to respond to his plea, Melling realised that his time in Constantinople was up. By 1803, he was back in France. Yet his career was far from over. Drawing on his experiences at court, he went on to create a coveted book of 48 engravings called Voyage pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore. These amounted to a survey of life in the Ottoman capital at the time of Selim III.
Each engraving was based on a watercolour by Melling, and on 22 March 2023 one of the few such watercolours to survive is being offered at Christie’s in Paris as part of the Dessins anciens et du XIXe siècle (Old Master and 19th Century Drawings) sale.
Born in 1763, Melling began his career in the painting atelier of his uncle in Strasbourg. He also studied mathematics and architecture, before travelling to Italy and the Mediterranean.
Aged around 20, he made it to Constantinople, where he would settle for two decades. Initially, he worked as a tutor, teaching art to the children of families in the well-to-do area of Pera (now Beyoğlu).
He also designed a garden for the mansion of Baron Frederik von Hübsch, the Danish ambassador, and it was after seeing this that an impressed Sultana Hatice contracted Melling herself. His role in imperial service doesn’t seem to have been too precisely defined — in her book, Mediterranean Encounters: Artists Between Europe and the Ottoman Empire 1774-1839, the art historian Elisabeth A. Fraser describes him as a ‘kind of artistic director in residence’.
His duties included overseeing the sewing of pearls into the sultana’s napkins. More famously, he designed the layout and gardens of Defterdarburnu, her new palace on the Bosphorus, and managed the complete renovation of Selim III’s summer dwelling, Beşiktaş Palace.
As a private endeavour, Melling also produced the watercolours which would later serve as the basis for Voyage pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore. In the example coming to auction, he captured — in shimmering colours and rich detail — a wedding procession taking place in Pera.
The subjects aren’t known to us, but given the circles in which Melling mixed and the lavishness of the scene, they were clearly people of distinction. The procession is led by a man on the left, who carries a huge pole decorated with long, cascading threads of gold foil.
Behind him are two men, each bearing on his head a tray of vases filled with flowers; and a jester in a pointy hat, who shakes a handkerchief in one hand and a staff in the other.
Among those farther back is a man carrying a sheep to be sacrificed, followed by the bridal trousseau and, finally, the closed chariot containing the bride herself. All are on their way to meet the groom.
Out of respect for Selim III, Melling inscribed a tughra, the calligraphic emblem of the sultan’s authority, above a water fountain on the picture’s far right.
Taken together, the 48 watercolours capture a mix of landscapes, buildings and local lives being lived, in Constantinople and on its waterways.
Melling’s own life was soon to be lived elsewhere, however, on his removal from Selim III’s court. Sultana Hatice was married — to the governor of an Ottoman province, who lived far from the capital — and it has been suggested that when the sultan found out about her extramarital liaison with Melling, he cast the Frenchman out and insisted that his half-sister end all contact with him.
Whatever the truth of this, Melling soon found himself in Paris, lacking both money and recognition. He was savvy enough to spot a niche in the city’s art market, however. The 18th century had seen a growing trend in Western Europe, particularly France, for all things Ottoman: a trend that even had its own name, turquerie.
This encompassed textiles, fashion (in the form of turbans and kaftans), music, porcelain, and even a fondness for drinking coffee.
‘Melling saw his [adopted] city like an Istanbulite but painted it like a clear-eyed Westerner’ — author Orhan Pamuk
In the aftermath of their conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans were deemed the sworn enemies of the Christian West. A failed siege on Vienna in 1683, however, signalled the end of their military threat — and by Melling’s time, antagonism had long since given way to curiosity and admiration.
The artist realised that his pictorial memories of Constantinople would fit nicely into a society consumed by turqueries. He exhibited his watercolours, to much acclaim, in the Paris Salon — and a few even came into the possession of Napoleon’s wife, Empress Josephine, a known admirer.
He also set up a printing studio and commissioned some of Paris’s finest engravers to work on what would become Voyage pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore.
This was published in a number of instalments between 1809 and 1819. It came complete with a city map, which pointed out where each scene was set, and a textual commentary, thanks to the input of learned figures such as the geographer Jean Denis Barbié du Bocage and the historian Jean Charles Dominique de Lacretelle.
This factual approach matched Melling’s artistic style. Unlike other French artists in Constantinople in the 18th century, such as Jean-Baptiste Hilaire and Louis-François Cassas — and unlike the European Orientalist artists of the 19th century who came after him — Melling avoided romanticising or exoticising his subject matter.
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His scenes are marked by their naturalism — a trait surely due, in part, to the extraordinary access he had to the Ottoman court. With the possible exception of Jean-Baptiste Vanmour a century earlier, no other artist before or after him had the same.
The Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk is a fan, and in his book Istanbul: Memories and the City (2003) claimed that Melling ‘saw his [adopted] city like an Istanbulite but painted it like a clear-eyed Westerner’.
The vast majority of buildings from the Ottoman era are no more, because of either fire or demolition — and, as a result, Pamuk regards Melling’s scenes as a ‘lost heaven’. To look at those realistic snapshots of grand old Constantinople, he says, is to experience ‘melancholy mixed with joy’.
The wedding watercolour counts the diplomat Auguste Boppe as one of its past owners. In 1911, after serving as France’s ambassador in Constantinople, Boppe wrote The Painters of the Bosphorus in the 18th Century, which remains an essential work for anyone interested in turquerie and the European artists who travelled east during that period. (Melling was among the artists profiled.)
A Turkish Wedding Procession is being offered at Christie’s by one of Boppe’s descendants, in what will be its first appearance on the market for more than a century.
As for Melling, as the years passed, his career in Paris went from strength to strength. He was named as an official painter to both Empress Josephine and, after the restoration of France’s monarchy, Louis XVIII. For all that, however, it is his imagery of the Ottoman capital for which he is best remembered.