This pair of drawings were commissioned from Lespinasse by Ignatius Mouradgea d'Ohsson to illustrate his Tableau général de l'Empire Othoman, a monumental illustrated description of the Empire published in two volumes in 1787, with a third posthumous volume published by his son in 1824.
Mouradgea d'Ohsson, a French Armenian who rose from being dragoman (translator-factotum) at the Swedish embassy in Constantinople in 1760 to Swedish Minister in 1795, conceived the idea for his project before 1784, when he commissioned a number of artists based in the Ottoman Empire to record scenes of diplomatic, public and private life. In 1784 Mouradgea took these drawings, which according to his collaborator Charles-Nicolas Cochin may have numbered more than 800, to Paris, where they provided the structure for the text of the work itself. In France they were worked up as finished watercolors and prepared for the engraver by a team of artists including Lespinasse, Moreau le Jeune and Le Barbier l'Aîne.
Lespinasse's experience as a draughtsman for the French army, and his famous series of bird's-eye views of Paris would have made him an obvious choice for the commission. A red chalk study for the first scene in the present lot, attributed to Jean-Baptiste van Mour, is in a private collection (A. Boppe, Les peintres du Bosphore au XVIIIe siècle, Paris, 1989, p. 30, illustrated). A watercolor by Lespinasse for the scene in the Tableau général immediately preceding the second drawing in this lot, depicting A European Ambassador dining with the Grand Vizier, two other watercolors for the project by Lespinasse, and a fourth by Moreau le Jeune, are in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm (P. Bjurström, French Drawings, Eighteenth Century, Stockholm, 1982, nos. 1059-1061 and 1065). A further series of drawings relating to the project, by Lespinasse, Moreau le Jeune, Le Barbier l'Aîné, and Hilaire were sold at Christie's, London, 13-14 December 1984, lots 127-134.
The Tableau général seems to have been planned by Mouradgea as both a description of the Ottoman system and as a pro-Ottoman refutation of the Philhellene ideas prevalent in Western Europe at the time and exemplified by Choiseul-Gouffier's lavishly illustrated Voyages pittoresques de la Grèce published in 1782. Mouradgea acted as King Gustav III of Sweden's personal agent from 1775, secretly monitoring the activities of the Swedish Ambassador, and so would have had intimate experience of the system he was describing. Indeed as Swedish Minister from 1795-1799 he would have been presented to the Grand Vizier and Sultan in scenes very similar to those depicted in the present lot.
Ottoman court protocol was strictly codified, and diplomatic scenes make up a significant number of the images in the Tableau général. The first drawing in the present lot shows a distinguished European visitor being received by the Grand Vizier, either at the Bab-i ali at the Topkapi Palace or at his yali, his villa on the shores of the Bosphorus. Panoramic views of the water can be seen through the windows, but it is not possible to determine if the view is of the Golden Horn, in which case it is from Topkapi, or of the Bosphorus, in which case it is from a yali. Lespinasse has provided the interior with boiseries in the French fashion, which may be a misunderstanding on the part of the artist who had never visited Constantinople or a reflection of the pro-European tastes of the reforming Sultan Selim III. The drawing was not engraved for the Tableau général: Professor Carter V. Findley suggests this may been for reasons of expense, near duplication with other scenes, or the loss of the drawing between its execution in 1790 and publication of the third volume in 1820.
The second drawing in the present lot shows a European ambassador being presented to the Sultan himself. Having presented his credentials to the Grand Vizier and eaten a ceremonial meal, the ambassador and his retinue would be escorted to the imperial presence in the arz odasi (Hall of Petitions), an audience pavilion inside the gateway of the third court at the Topkapi Palace. The ambassador and his suite are shown dressed in hil'at (fur-trimmed robes of honor), but are identifiable from their European headgear. The drawing shows the moment when the imperial translator, bowing, relays the ambassador's speech to the sultan, surrounded by the high officials of his court. The sultan sits on a lavish throne, recognizable from an early 19th Century description by the artist Antoine-Ignace Melling: 'Oriental luxury has exhausted all its art to make this throne more magnificent. It looks like a bed of antique design; gold and fine pearls enhance the splendour of the rich drapery with which it is covered; its columns are silver gilt. The Grand Seigneur takes his position there clad in a ceremonial robe that recalls the ancient costume of the Tartars; his turban is surmounted by an egret enriched with diamonds; he wears yellow boots, his feet being supported on a step. The Grand Vizier and the High Admiral occupy a position to the right of the throne; to the left are the Chief Black Eunuch and the Chief White Eunuch.' (A.-I.Melling, Voyage Pittoresque de Constantinople et des Rives du Bosphore, Paris, 1808).
We are very grateful to Professor Carter V. Findley for his kind help in preparing this entry.