This fine portrait depicts the Ottoman Sultan Süleyman I, also known as Süleyman the Magnificent (r.1520-66). There existed a tradition of royal portraits of this type throughout the Ottoman period, most of which illustrated texts such as the Qifayet al-Insaniyeh, the 'Physiognomy of the Ottomans', and the Zubdat al-Tawarikh, the 'Cream of Histories', both written by Seyyid Luqman Ashouri, the official chronicler (shehnameci) of Selim II and Murad III.
Our painting is from a known series which probably originally illustrated a copy of Luqman’s Qifayet al-Insaniyeh. Other paintings from the series are known, all published in museums or private collections. One, depicting Sultan Ahmad I (r.1603-17), is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is dated there to the early 17th century (http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/450516?rpp=30=1=Ottoman%2c+Sultan%2c+portrait=1). Another, of Sultan Selim II (r.1566-74), was formerly in the Binney collection and is attributed to circa 1600-10 (Edwin Binney, 3rd, Turkish Miniature Paintings & Manuscripts from the Collection of Edwin Binney, 3rd, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1973, pp.72-73, no.23). A third, which depicts Sultan Murad II (r.1404-51) is in the Fogg Art Museum, there dated to circa 1600 (Walter B. Denny and Aileen Ribeiro, Court and Conquest: Ottoman Origins and the Design for Handel's Tamerlano at the Glimmerglass Opera, exhibition catalogue, Kent State University Museum, 1999, fig.29, p.33).The paintings from the series are characterised by strong gold spandrels which contain black arabesque and surround a background of various geometric motifs in soft colours. The Sultans all sit upon a carpet and lean on a gold or silver yastik with similar arabesque borders and a band of arches containing quatrefoil flowerheads at either end. All of the paintings have cartouches left for calligraphy along the upper margin which appear to have been left blank at the time of production although ours, and that of the Fogg Art Museum, have been filled in at a later date.
In the catalogue entry that accompanies his painting, Binney writes that ‘it is probable that the portraits of the rulers who reigned close to the time of completion of the work are an actual likeness, whereas the portraits of the earlier sultans were no doubt made up by the artist, following general iconographic traditions’ (Binney, op.cit., p.72). Given the presence of a portrait of Ahmad I, within it, our series is likely to have been produced in the first decade of the 17th century. Under this assumption the Sultan Süleyman of our painting, executed some forty years after his death, might be more fanciful than for instance the portrait of Ahmad I in the Metropolitan Museum.
A closely related but slightly earlier portrait of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, painted by the court painter Nakkash Osman and dated to 1579-80, is in the library of the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul (The Age of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, exhibition catalogue, Australia, 2000, pp.26-27, cat.no.2). The paintings is from a still complete copy of Qifayet al-Insaniyeh, and in the catalogue entry that accompanies it, the author describes Luqman’s forward to the text which includes a discussion of physiognomy and its use in understanding individuals through their physical traits. In the chapter on Sultan Süleyman he describes at length the physical traits of the Sultan as follows, ‘A beautiful round face, frowning brows, azure blue eyes, a ram’s nose, an imposing and majestic build like a gracious lion with a luxuriant bert, a long neck and a good height; a handsome man with a wide chest and flat shoulders, long fingers, strong feet and arms; a fearless, faultless and glorious ruler’ (The Age of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, op.cit., p.27).