The Bosphorus Through The Eyes Of European Travelers
With the development of transportation in the early 19th century, european artists, writers and historians who had previously ventured at most to Italy and Greece started flocking to Istanbul, gateway to the east and to discover the mysterious orient.
The famous French writer, politician and diplomat, François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), got a chance to see Istanbul in 1806. Here is what he says in the book he published in 1811: “In front of me the Bosphorus wound between charming hills like a majestic river. Countless small boats shuttled back and forth around a handful of large ships lying at anchor. The vast breadth of these three big cities, Galata, Istanbul and Scutari, their houses large and small rising in tiers, cypress trees standing singly and in groves on almost every side, minarets and tall masts of ships all intertwined, the variegated green of the trees, the red and white of the houses, and below them the sea spreading its blue cover, and above, a sky of another blue, all awakened in me a profound sense of awe. It would be no exaggeration to say that Istanbul offers one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.”
Splendor And Elegance
When another famous French writer, poet and statesman, Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), came to Istanbul by sea in 1833, he was stunned by the city: “Involuntarily, a sigh escaped my lips. It was as though I had forgot the Bay of Naples and all its beauty, never to recall it again. It would be a flagrant insult to creation to say this elegant and splendid view is like none other in the world.” Not feeling compelled to compare the Bay of Naples, so beloved of European artists, with the Bosphorus, he describes his feelings as follows: “A painter would have to labor for many years to be able to depict just one of the shores of the Bosphorus. Such is this place that it changes anew at every glance, and as it changes, new and even fresher beauty appears to us. What then can I describe in a handful of words?”
Discovering Light In Istanbul
Experiencing no modification in their technique as students of the West’s neoclassical, romantic, realist and impressionist movements, European artists only discovered light in Istanbul. And when they did, their colors became more vibrant and dazzling, the tones of their palettes brighter red and yellow, the light in their canvases warmer, the contrasts more pronounced. Each one of them produced numerous orientalist works ranging from sketches to large compositions, in which they can be distinguished by their sensibilities, their skill and experience, the positions in which they found themselves, and the styles they employed.
Appointed Ottoman Palace Painter by Sultan Abdulhamid II in 1896, Fausto Zonaro first saw the Bosphorus from the deck of a ship in 1891. “I am not going to try to describe the entrance to Istanbul harbor with my poor pen,” he says. “Masters like Théophile Gautier, Pierre Loti and Edmondo de Amicis have already done that view justice. I am going to do it not with my pen but with my brush. I am going to capture that fusion of color and create that eye-dazzling atmosphere on my palette at every hour of the day.”
City Of Color And Harmony
Known as the ‘Modern Canaletto’ for his depictions of Venice in a style little different from that of Canaletto himself, Felix Ziem is another artist who, upon coming to Istanbul in 1856, says: “I found in this city the warmth I was seeking. I discovered harmony in its varied and picturesque shapes and colors that caress the eye.” Between his vigorous brush strokes and his depiction of fiery rays of color, the actual appearance of physical objects melts away in the views of the Bosphorus by this artist, who sought color and impression in his paintings.
The famous historian Baptistin Poujoulat (1908-1864) has this to say in the 1850’s about the Bosphorus, which attracted many other orientalist painters like Fabius Brest, Leonardo de Mango, Amadeo Preziosi and Théodore Frére: “Nature here exhibits unparalleled grandeur. Creation here is a constant feast. Separated by only a channel, Europe and Asia lie cloaked in the most splendid views so as to gaze upon each other… Every corner, every spot creates a different tableau with its own unique features. These landscapes, all different and seen in different frames, are transformed into a gigantic picture gallery made up of enchanting views of both shores.”
Through the images depicted by the 19th century orientalist painters on canvases that have become important documents today, the Bosphorus has lost nothing of its spell thanks to the harmony between its historic texture and magnificent natural beauty that persists today despite a skyline altered by suspension bridges, buildings rising in the background and giant container ships passing. Istanbul continues to be one of the world’s most fascinating cities, exerting its pull on artists both Turkish and foreign today as yesterday.