Jean-Baptiste Hilair's portrait of the Sultan Abd-ul Hamid I (reigned 1774-89) continues a tradition of Western artists depicting Ottoman rulers that began with Gentile Bellini's portrait of Mehmed II in the late fifteenth century. It is also an example of the taste for turquerie in eighteenth century European art. Hilair's portrait of the sultan combines the prototype of a full-length European portrait with the requisite exotic motifs of the Ottoman world.
Little is known of Hilair's life. It is believed that he studied with Jean-Baptiste Le Prince. In 1776 he accompanied Marie-Gabriel-Florent-Auguste, comte de Choiseul-Gouffier (1752-1817), later the French ambassador to the Ottoman court, on the Marquis de Chambert's scientific expedition through the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Hilair created many of the images that were engraved for Choiseul-Gouffier's 1782 publication, Le voyage en Grèce as well as those for Tableau de l'Empire Ottoman, a publication commissioned by Mouradgea d'Ohsson, a wealthy Armenian who was secretary to the Swedish minister. It is not known how long Hilair remained in the Eastern Mediterranean: illness may have cut his trip short. He is next recorded as being back in Paris in 1780 when he exhibited works at the Salon de la Jeunesse and Salon de la Correspondance. Hilair continued to produce a myriad of works depicting everyday life, local landscapes and court customs observed during his time in the Ottoman world, fueling the taste for turquerie.
Abd-ul Hamid was imprisoned at the age of six for 43 years during the reign of his cousins and brother, Mahmud I, Osman III and Mustafa III. During this time his mother Rabia Semi Sultana was in charge of his education. As a result of his isolation, Abd-ul Hamid was an aloof and distant if beloved ruler whose subjects referred to him as 'Veli' or saint. His successes with administrative and economic reforms were offset by disastrous military campaigns, notably the Ottoman Empire's loss of the Crimea to Russia.
Hilair's portrait of Abd-ul Hamid I is an amalgam of European and Ottoman technique, symbolism and intent. The full-length, naturalistic portrait is in a traditional European format, and the Sultan's visage with his dark eyes, curved eyebrows, long face and thick beard correspond with other images and written descriptions of him. Abd-ul Hamid is shown wearing his customary aigrette with diamonds and fan-shaped plumes, and a jeweled and fur-trimmed kaftan.
It is unlikely, however,that the Sultan would have posed for Hilair. Despite the legacy of European artists portraying Ottoman Sultans that began with Gentile Bellini's portrait of Mehmed II and includes Melchior Lorchs' engraving of Suleyman the Magnificent, these images were rarely based upon firsthand observation. Despite the ban on figurative images in Islamic art, a tradition of sultan portraiture existed in Ottoman art since the inception of the Empire. These images were mostly small scale and found in manuscripts that described the lineage and history of the sultans, as well as miniatures. They were formulaic and symbolic rather than naturalistic. Hilair, like his predecessors, could have based his portrait on images of the Sultan found in Ottoman miniatures and manuscripts, or distant first-hand observation as a part of Choiseul-Gouffier's official retinue, and combined that with direct studies of the Ottoman court and landscape. The large palace in the background of the present drawing with its multiple domes of various sizes is loosely based upon the Topkapi Palace and is depicted in another drawing by Hilair in the Louvre (inv. RF 29659). The wide golden throne is typical of those used by Ottoman Sultans.
The date of Hilair's portrait (1788) also precludes it from being based upon immediate observation of the sultan as the artist was almost certainly back in France at this time. Yet the accuracy of the image renders it a very specific portrait, and not a vague turquerie-type decoration. It could have been a commission by an ambassador such as Choiseul-Gouffier to commemorate his time in Constantinople, in much the same way as foreign dignitaries required artists to record their presentation ceremony to the Sultan (see lot 109). Choiseul-Gouffier owned at least one other portrait of Abd-ul Hamid, this by the Italian artist Fernando Toniolo who came to Constantinople as part of a delegation of Venetian dignitaries (see The Sultan's Portrait, op. cit., p. 435, no. 128).