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Discovery: A Portrait from the Court of Louis XV

Fri Jan 27, 2017

Our portrait of the Ottoman ambassador Yermisekiz Çelebi Mehmed Efendi, a royal commission from the French court painter Pierre Gobert, is one of the most emotive portraits of a middle-eastern subject in Europe to have been painted in the first half of the 18th century.

The significance of this portrait and its reemergence after two centuries or more of loss, is outlined in the below essay by scholar Haydn Williams.

An essay by Haydn Williams, author of ‘Turquerie; An Eighteenth-Century European Fantasy’ (London, 2014) and formerly of Sotheby’s, London

The Ottoman embassy of Yermisekiz Çelebi Mehmed Efendi to Paris in 1721 revealed the Sublime Porte’s altered approach to its connections with Europe. This painting by Pierre Gobert is the only known surviving life-size portrait of the ambassador whose culture and diplomatic skills embodied the empire’s new outlook. It was painted on the order of the Bâtiments du roi, the division of the household of the kings of France that was responsible for royal residences, as permanent record of the illustrious visitor.

In 1535, in the reign of François I, France established a permanent embassy in Constantinople; thereafter other European countries followed, spurred on by the hope of winning advantageous trading privileges and political alliances. The Sublime Porte, on the other hand, preferred to manage its diplomatic activities on home ground, in Constantinople, and so until 1796, when a permanent Ottoman embassy was set up in Paris, it relied upon low-key delegations led by envoys who were effectively little more than bearers and receivers of letters. These delegations were led by modestly ranked officials of the sultan’s household, çavuş. Thus the decision to dispatch Mehmed Efendi to France as ambassador marked a radical change of thought, perhaps sparked by Ottoman consciousness of shifts in the balance of power between it and its adversaries, and also the idea that the empire could learn from recent technological advances made in Europe.[1] The stated reasons for the 1721 Paris embassy were the granting of permission to restore the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the negotiation for the release of over a hundred muslims captured by the Knights of Malta; however, the Grand Vizier Nevşehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha gave more covert instructions to the ambassador, ‘to investigate thoroughly the instruments of civilisation and education and submit those that could be implemented’ to the sultan.[2]

When Jean-Louis d’Usson, marquis de Bonnac, French ambassador in Constantinople at the time heard that Mehmed Efendi had been chosen to head the planned embassy, he reported to the foreign ministry in Paris that he was ‘a man of wit, accustomed to the affairs of the state, and with some knowledge of foreigners … he uses his conversation to underline his good manners’.[3] Yermisekiz Çelebi Mehmed Efendi, then aged fifty, was of Georgian descent, the son of an officer of the Janissary corps, Suleyman Agha. As a young man he enrolled in the military- the name Yermisekiz, twenty-eight in Turkish, refers to his membership of the 28th battalion, orta, of Janissaries. Subsequently he re-orientated his career towards finance and was at one stage superintendent of the Ottoman mint. At the time of his nomination as ambassador he was chief imperial accountant, defterdar. This broad-based background, combined with the wit and good manners noted by de Bonnac, was to stand him in good stead as a diplomat.

Mehmed Efendi left Constantinople on 7 October 1720, accompanied by his son Yirmisekizzade Mehmed Said Efendi, acting as his personal secretary, and a retinue of some eighty-five persons to look after all his physical and spiritual needs.[4] Arriving at Toulon on 22 November, the party was obliged to submit to forty days of quarantine before setting off to Paris on an indirect route via Bordeaux. At Toulouse Mehmed Efendi observed that ‘the desire of the people to view us was such that they would make excursions of four or five-hour distances to the riverside to watch us’.[5] The curiosity of the public remained undiminished throughout his time in France- in Paris he commented ‘They wanted in particular to watch us eat … we could not always refuse … since we were not accustomed to such behaviour, this distressed us very much’.[6] Subtle diplomat that he was, he tolerated these infringements of his privacy, recognising that they were a result of the conventions of the country, noting that the king was watched not only when eating but also at his levée and toilet. Mehmed Efendi’s elegant comportment was widely admired: Elisabeth-Charlotte, duchesse d’Orléans observed “I feel that manners have left the court of France for Turkey, if one judges by those of the Turkish ambassador here’.[7]

The embassy made its formal procession into Paris on 15 March and six days later, on 21 March, Mehmed Efendi and his entourage were received with great pomp at the Tuileries by the young King Louis XV. Thereafter, until leaving the city on 3 August for the return journey, he visited schools, manufactories and workshops in order to accomplish the investigative brief given to him by the Grand Vizier. A painting by Pierre d’Ulin records the ambassador’s visit to the hôtel des Invalides on 25 March, shortly after the reception at the Tuileries.[8] In the centre of a large group, Mehmed Efendi is depicted showing due reverence to the explanations of the minister of war, Claude Le Blanc, who stands to his right. Besides being an important record of the event, this painting is also a key reference for identifying the appearance of the ambassador, showing features that are unquestionably compatible with the present portrait. The ambassador also attended ballets and operas. An anecdote about one such occasion is indicative of the gallantry that Mehmed Efendi had mastered, and which evidently so delighted the court. At a performance of the comedy Don Japheth d’Arménie given in his honour at the Tuileries on 10 May he was asked by Mademoiselle de la Roche-sur-Yon-Conti what he thought of the divertissements; he replied that he was ‘so taken by her charms that he had not attended those of the ballet’.[9]

Upon his return to Constantinople Mehmed Efendi wrote his sefâretnâme (Turkish: the book of embassy, a literary genre in which an ambassador gives an account of his embassy for the benefit of the sultan and high officials). As it was a public document he took care to avoid overly judgemental comments; de Bonnac, who managed to acquire a copy and have it translated into French by Julien-Claude Galland, observed ‘his account is of material things’.[10]

The enthusiastic response to Mehmed Effendi’s embassy unsurprisingly led to a pictorial record. At the lower end of the market this was provided by the engravers and print-dealers of the rue Saint-Jacques in Paris, who produced a considerable array of images, from portraits of the ambassador to representations of significant events. Deprived of privileged access, however, the artists had to rely on their fancy, or to adapt earlier engravings. For instance, Gabrielle Landry, in a full-length portrait of Mehmed and his son, ingeniously used an engraving of the sultan and his chief eunuch, plate 2 of Charles de Ferriol’s Recueil de cent estampes …, which had been first published to great acclaim in 1714.[11]

The facial features were changed, obviously most dramatically for the metamorphosis from black eunuch to Caucasian son, and, among other details, the turbans altered to fit their social rank. More straight forward portraits were also published, usually of oval bust format. Again inaccessibility to subject led to stylisation and fantasy. Further, it is not always evident exactly when they were published. The portrait of Mehmed Efendi published by Michel Odieuvre, for example, was most likely published at the time when Mehmed Said Efendi returned to Paris as ambassador in 1742.[12] This nonetheless confirms the enduring interest in the subject.

Surviving paintings of the embassy activities are far fewer. Among them are d’Ulin’s depiction of the visit to hôtel des Invalides, previously mentioned, and Pierre-Denis Martin’s representation of the ambassadorial cortege leaving the Tuileries, now in the musée Carnavalet, Paris. In the April 1721 edition of the Nouveau Mercure, in the ‘Journal des Arts’, it was noted that Antoine Coypel had shown the Regent a sketch for a painting of the reception at the Tuileries; in the June-July edition there was a correction in the ‘Beaux-Arts’ section, stating that the artist involved as Charles Coypel, son of Antoine.[13] This sketch is lost today and it seems that, as there is no reference to payment in the royal records, the full-scale painting was never completed. The most important visual record of an event was Charles Parrocel’s depiction of Mehmed Efendi arriving in the Tuileries gardens on 21 March. This painting was begun in 1723 and finished in 1727, the year it was exhibited at the Salon.[14] Following the exhibition, Louis-Antoine de Pardaillan de Gondrin, duc d’Antin, director-general of the Bâtiments du roi commissioned the artist to prepare three cartoons showing the day’s events to be used for tapestries. Between 1731 and 1737 two compositions, representing the arrival and departure of the ambassador in the Tuileries, were woven at the Gobelins (Manufacture Royale de Gobelins); the third cartoon remained incomplete at the time of Parrocel’s death in 1752.[15] The tapestries were intended to form part of a Nouvelle Histoire du roi, a series to commemorate the significant events of Louis XV’s reign. That the embassy of Mehmed Efendi was represented twice in this series is indicative of the importance that was attached to it.

Until now the painted portrait record has proved to be even more elusive. Contemporary reports indicate that artist did have access to Mehmed Efendi: in April 1721 the Nouveau Mercure informed its readers that ’Sieur Justinat had obtained the ambassador’s permission to paint his portrait’.[16] The records of the Bâtiments du roi for 12 June 1725 note that ‘Sr Justina’ was paid four hundred livres for a painting ‘representing the portrait of the ambassador of the Porte in the year 1721’.[17] This could possibly have been the painting that the duchesse d’Orléans mentioned in a letter of 3 May, ‘… I hope to be able to send you the Turkish ambassador’s portrait; it has been done in oil and it will be engraved …’.[18] This painting is untraced, and no known engravings representing Mehmed Efendi indicate Justinat as the compositional source.

The only artist other than Augustin Oudat Justinat mentioned in the records of the Bâtiments du roi as having painted Mehmed Efendi is Pierre Gobert. His name appears in an account dated 12 June 1726 where a number of portraits painted for the king in the years 1719, 1720 and 1724 are listed. Among these is ‘The portrait of the Turkish ambassador; 3 and a half pieds (feet) high by 3 and a half pieds wide … 600 liv[res]’.[19] That the dimensions are mentioned is interesting- possibly on account of the rather unusual square format. A pied du roi is equivalent to 32.48cm, so that the portrait measured 113.68cm square. Although the present painting’s dimensions differ (107 by 76.5cm), evidence suggests that this portrait, the sitter’s identity confirmed by the ‘Invalides’ painting, is the Bâtiments du roi commission, but of altered format. At some point this canvas was removed from the original stretcher, and most probably at the same time it was cut to conform to a more conventional upright portrait shape. While this led to an inconsequential loss of just over six centimetres to the height, there was by necessity a greater reduction to the sides, resulting in the truncation of the sitter’s right arm. The powerful presence of the now centrally placed figure, however, diminishes the impact of this editing.

Pierre Gobert (1666-1744) was born in Fontainebleau, son of the sculptor Jean II Gobert. He entered the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture on 31 December 1701 as a portrait painter. His reputation, quickly established at the court of Louis XIV, continued to flourish in the reign of Louis XV. Gobert’s skills appear to have been particularly admired by the ladies of the court, among them Mademoiselle de la Roche-sur-Yon-Conti, addressee of Mehmed Effendi’s gallant words at the opera.[20] Completely fluent in the conventions of court portraiture, it was natural for Gobert to apply them to his portrait of the Ottoman ambassador. Thus he depicted Mehmed Efendi as dignified and self-contained, his head turned slightly, with eyes gazing away from the spectator.

The half-length figure, with one hand raised to his side and the other gesturing outward, is posed in an indeterminate dark space relieved at one side by an arched aperture opening to a landscape and cloud-scattered sky. Into this well-established formal composition, Gobert breathed life by sharp observation, encouraged by the novelty of the subject. The marquis de Bonnac, writing to his foreign ministry in Paris had noted Mehmed Efendi had ‘an agreeable face, and a long black beard that has started to whiten’.[21] For a court painter at this period the beard was an unfamiliar feature, however, Gobert carefully recorded the different growths of moustache and beard, as well as showing the white hairs mentioned by de Bonnac. He also captured the agreeable face described by the French ambassador.

Gobert’s attention to detail continued in his depiction of the costume. Everything worn by Mehmed Efendi is an indicator of his status. On his head he wears a green pleated toque, kavuk, the colour identifying him as a man of law. Around it is bound gold-edged muslin wrap, tülbent (thus the word turban in English), the gold detail conveying high rank. His outer robe is a kapaniçe, a long-sleeved silk garment with ermine lining and collar- in the Ottoman world, as in Europe, ermine could only be worn by the elite. Below the kapaniçe he wears a rose-pink silk caftan closed by a row of minute buttons. About his waist is a belt made of parcel-gilt silver plaques behind which is thrust a spectacular jewelled yatagan, curved sword, the most conspicuous indicator of his high status.[22]

Although depicted wearing Ottoman costume, Mehmed Efendi is presented as a European statesman. The impression of dignified assurance is conveyed not only by the composition, but also by Gobert’s exacting painting technique. Tones transition smoothly, the brushstroke gestures carefully controlled and almost unseen- unlike Justinat’s preference for conspicuous brushwork and areas of broken colour.

Gobert combined his skills, groomed in the classical academy tradition of France, with the requirement to produce an official image and his own fascination for a new subject, to paint a unique portrait of a man who established a new level of cultural understanding between the Ottoman empire and western Europe.

[1] Mehmed Efendi was the second Ottoman with the rank of ambassador to head an embassy. The first was Ibrahim Pasha who was sent to Vienna in 1719, a year after the signing of the Peace of Passarowitz between the Ottoman empire on one side and the Habsburg monarch of Austria and the Republic of Venice on the other. It was part of a reciprocal exchange of ambassadors, with the Austrian Count Damian Hugo von Virmont travelling to Constantinople.

[2] Quoted Halil Inalcık and Günsel Renda (eds), Ottoman Civilization, Ankara, 2003, vol. 2, pp. 1082-83.

[3] Quoted ’Un ambassadeur Turc à Paris sous la Régence’, in Revue d'histoire diplomatique, (year 3), 1889, vol. 1, p. 81.

[4] See Fatma Müge Göçek, East Encounters West: France and the Ottoman Empire in the Eighteenth Century, New York and London, 1987, Appendix B, for details about the retinue of Mehmed Efendi, and the book in general for an account of the 1721 embassy.

[5] Quoted ibid p. 44.

[6] Quoted ibid. p. 41.

[7] Elisabeth-Charlotte, duchesse d’Orléans, Madame Palatine, Lettres françaises, Dirk Van der Cruysse (ed.), Paris, 1989, Letter no. 794, p. 691.

[8] Private collection, illustrated Auguste Boppe, Les peintres du Bosphore au XViiie siècle, Paris, 1989, p.136.

[9] Quoted Revue d’histoire diplomatique, (year 3), 1889, vol.1, p. 209.

[10] Quoted Göçek, op. cit., p. 65

[11] For an example of the Landry print, see Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF), identifier ark:/12148/btv1b8498504x; for the de Ferriol print, see BNF, identifier ark:/12148/btv1b53000003j (image 45).

[12] For example, BNF, identifier ark:/12148/btv1b8408512g.

[13] Le Nouveau Mercure, April 1721, p. 165; June-July 1721, p. 130.

[14] Musée du château de Versailles, inv. MV 177. The exhibited painting was acquired by the crown in 1739.

[15] Cartoons: musée du château de Versailles, inv. MV 2215 (Entry, completed 1731), MV 2216 (Departure, completed 1734). These cartoons were exhibited at the Salon in 1746 ( nos 52, 53). The third cartoon was to have depicted the ambassador on the steps outside the Tuileries palace. The tapestries were woven at the Gobelins in the Lefebvre workshop (the departure tapestry was completed in the Monmerqué workshop). The total cost of production was 17,788 livres, considerably more than 12,000 livres Parrocel was paid for the two cartoons. Both tapestries are in the collection of the Mobilier national, inv. nos 184-1; 184-2.

[16] Le Nouveau Mercure, April 1721, p. 166.

[17] Inventaire des tableaux commandés et achetés par la direction des Bâtiments du roi (1709-1792), Paris, 1900, p. 243.

[18] Elisabeth-Charlotte, duchesse d’Orléans, Madame Palatine, Correspondence de Madame, duchesse d’Orléans, trans. Ernest Jaglé, Paris, 1890, vol. 3, p. 98.

[19] Inventaire des tableaux commandés et achetés par la direction des Bâtiments du roi (1709-1792), Paris, 1900, p. 211.

[20] Musée du château de Versailles, inv. MV 2274bis (studio of Gobert).

[21] Quoted Revue d'histoire diplomatique, year 3, 1889, vol. 1, p. 81.

[22] An early 18th century yatagan with a similar jewelled hilt is in the collection of the Topkapı Serai, inv. 2/1137, illustrated Topkapı à Versailles, Paris, 1989, cat. 236.