Oil on canvas, depicting the favourite consort of Sultan Ahmed I (r.1603-1617), known as Ksem or Mahpeyker Sultan, breastfeeding her son, either the future Sultan Murad IV (r.1623-1640) or Sultan Ibrahim (1640-1648), both figures wear extensive hardstone-studded jewellery and large rounded cloth turbans, Ksem Sultan also wears golden brocade garments, fine white lace and jewel-studded pointed shoes, above the pair hangs a European-style red velvet curtain, in thin wood frame
74 x 37in. (189.4 x 94.7cm.)
The headdress seen here, with its high back supporting a veil, relates closely to a number of other examples depicted in Europe worn by ladies who are clearly identified as Ottoman rulers' wives. A mid-16th century Venetian woodcut by Mathio Pagani depicting Roxelana shows her wearing a similar headdress that has only one tier but it is more pronounced (British Museum inv.1878.7-13.4166). A two-tier headdress very similar to the one seen here is found on a print depicting "wahre Contrafactur des Türkischen Kaijsers Ibrahims-Sohn und der Sultanin seiner Mutter" (A true likeness of the Turkish Emperor Ibrahim, the son, and the Sultana, his mother) (Matthaeus Merian, Theatri Europaei, vol.V, Frankfurt, 1645, p.831 (between pp. numbered 644 and 645; http://www.dilibri.de/rlbdfg/content/pageview/644264).
An original painting dating from circa 1630 closely related to and almost certainly the source of this print, is in a private collection (illustrated left). Apart from the whole depiction being reversed, the relationship between the page and the main figure is identical, as are the costumes of the two figures. The painting is one of a series that were painted for Hans Ludwig Graf von Kuefstein, either during or more probably immediately after his embassy to the Ottoman Court in Istanbul in 1628. On that embassy he was accompanied by two artists, almost certainly Franz Herrmann and Hans Gemminger, possibly assisted by Herrmann's apprentice, Valentin Mueller (Philip Mansel, 'Between Two Empires: Hans Ludwig von Kuefstein, Ambassador from the Holy Roman Emperor to the Ottoman Sultan in 1628, and his pictures', At the Sublime Porte, Ambassadors to the Ottoman Empire (1550-1800), exhibition catalogue, Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, London, 1988, p.18). It is impossible that the depictions of Turkish ladies were painted from life, however much they may have been declared to be "true likenesses" (Eleanor Sims, 'Hans Ludwig von Kuefstein's Turkish Figures, in At the Sublime Porte, op.cit., p.26). While the Kuefstein painting does not bear a rubric in German on the face, it has always been identified as Kösem Sultan, the mother of Sultan Ibrahim, and the print leaves no doubt as to this being the identity of the sitter. The face of Kösem Sultan in the Kuefstein painting is in turn strikingly similar to that of our subject. Both are wearing identical turbans and superstructures on top of them. It is clear from the comparison with the Kuefstein painting that ours is also intended to depict Kösem Sultan.
Kösem Sultan was the favourite wife of Sultan Ahmed I (r.1603-1617) who on his death, and after three very short reigns of Mustafa I and Osman II between 1617 and 1623, managed to be appointed official regent during the minority of her son Sultan Murad IV in the years 1623-1632. After his death in 1640 she continued as the powerful Valide Sultan for the reign of Sultan Ibrahim, another of her sons, and then again became regent for the start of the reign of her grandson Mehmed IV between 1648 and her death in 1651. She was the first woman ever to wield total power in the Ottoman Empire.
It is interesting to speculate on the message intended by this picture. The depiction of Sultan Ibrahim in Merian's Theatri Europaei shows him deliberately as a small almost lost young child, on a page facing the depiction of his full-size mother of distinctly regal bearing. Our painting carries an even more extreme version of the same message, depicting the Sultan as a newly-born prince, the product of, and complete dependent of, his mother Kösem Sultan. The scene could only have taken place within a year of his birth in 1612, and thus some fifteen years before the Kuefstein embassy.
The style of the painting shows clear French influence, especially in the modelling and in the high forehead typical particularly of Pierre Mignard, a Paris society portrait painter (Lada Nokolenko, Pierre Mignard, the Portrait Painter of the Grand Sicle, Munich, 1982, esp. pl.15). It shows it to be the work of a different artist from the Kuefstein depiction, but the format and size are directly comparable to the Kuefstein paintings. It also has an Italian provenance, which was also the case for a group of paintings thought to be from Kuefstein which appeared at auction at Sotheby's in London (Old Master Pictures, 27 May 1987, lots 86-92). It appears thus to be a missing Kuefstein painting depicting the most powerful woman of the Ottoman Empire.