Portraits of the Ottoman Sultans

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Portraits of the Ottoman Sultans

Turkey, circa 1914-15
Prints; lithographs
31 1/2 x 23 3/4 in. (80.01 x 60.33 cm)
Bequest of Edwin Binney, 3rd, Turkish Collection (AC1995.124.9)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

Lithography held a special place among Ottoman artists as the technology that could capture strokes akin to the hand-made movements of a pen or brush, but allowed for reproduction in multiples.


Lithography held a special place among Ottoman artists as the technology that could capture strokes akin to the hand-made movements of a pen or brush, but allowed for reproduction in multiples. This work, entitled in Ottoman Turkish “Sultans of the House of Osman,” embodies that process of remediation by invoking elements of both calligraphy and painting in a single printed image. Lithography arrived in the Ottoman empire in 1831 via French printmakers. The process required drawing upon a chemically treated stone with fat, wax, or a greasy crayon. The stone was then bathed in acid to etch the ungreased areas, allowing them to retain water when moistened. The greased areas would repel water, but cling to ink, thus transferring designs when pressed. Chromolithography required the labor-intensive overprinting of colors, which could involve ten or more passes for complex works, like the one here. In this image, Mehmed V Reşad (r.1909-1918) is flanked by lobed medallions portraying Mehmed II (r. 1444-46 and 1451-1481) on the right and Selim I (r. 1512 to 1520) on the left. The composition draws distinct parallels between the reigns of Mehmed V and his predecessors through battle vignettes. A full chain of sultanic portraits frames the celebrated trio at the center.

Mehmed V’s short and largely symbolic reign began in upheaval when his predecessor Abdülhamid II (r.1876-1909) was deposed by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) in a revolt on March 31, 1909. The CUP primarily administered the empire under Mehmed’s reign, which was marred by the Balkan wars and Italian advances in Tripolitania in North Africa. During these campaigns, the Ottomans lost their last directly governed province in Libya and most of the Balkans as they contended with brewing civil unrest in Albania, eastern Anatolia, and Cilicia (southern Anatolia). Therefore, this print’s grandiose view of the Sultan’s military strength offers more of a propagandistic vision in the wake of these turbulent events, perhaps in an attempt to boost faltering morale in a dynasty pulled into a world war.

The image builds upon the earlier tradition of sultanic portrait series, which depicts the current ruler as the worthy descendent of his illustrious forefathers, pictured here in a chronological progression of portraits pointing to Mehmed V. This work was likely printed during the early years of Ottoman involvement in WWI on the side of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria), or slightly prior. The image emphasizes the sultan’s modernized military on two fronts: one powered by steam naval vessels at sea, and the other bolstered by impeccably trained troops on the ground. The choices of Selim the Grim and Mehmed II invoke two key expansions to the Ottoman empire, which mirror the two wings of Mehmed V’s military.

On the right, above Mehmed II is a vignette of ghazi frontier warriors on horseback invading what is likely Byzantine land. In his famous conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed effectively crushed the Byzantine empire and took up the title of “the ruler of the two seas and the two continents.” Modern memory of his reign uplifted the ghazi ideal by celebrating his battles as glorious deeds in the name of Islam against largely Christian forces. The choice possibly parallels Mehmed V’s office as the caliph, who had the authority to declare holy wars. On the left side of Mehmed, the scene above Selim I harkens to another charged period of political and religious significance: the conquest of the Mamluks of Egypt in 1517. Selim’s navy largely contributed to this conquest that brought not only Egypt, but also Syria, Palestine, and the Arabian Peninsula under Ottoman rule. Most notably, the expansion granted the Ottomans guardianship over the revered pilgrimage sites of Mecca and Medina. Together, these historical references project an aspirational image of victorious military command in support of faith.



  • Denny, Walter B.  Turkish Treasures from the Collection of Edward Binney, 3rd.  Portland, OR:  Portland Art Museum, 1979.