Osman Hamdi Bey’s Tortoise Trainer


Pera Museum of Istanbul is the home to one of the most important paintings of Turkish History of Art: Tortoise Trainer of Osman Hamdi!

Osman Hamdi Bey, was one of the prominent intellectuals of his time and he was in charge of Archaeology Museums of the capital, İstanbul. We know that he studied law first in Istanbul and then in Paris. While in Paris, he decided to give the law study up and went for the fine arts, especially painting. He worked with French Orientalists and joined 1867 Paris Expo with three paintings.

Those nine fruitful years in Paris, gave him support when he instituted and became director of the Academy of Fine Arts is İstanbul in 1882. Later we see him as the leader of the first scientific archaeological research team of Turkish history. We know that he excavated not only in Turkish soil but even in Lebanon, which was part of the Ottoman Empire then. But he never stopped painting even when he was busy with all those researches and expeditions.

So this brings us to the famous Tortoise Trainer!
This painting was planned and executed as two versions in 1906 and 1907.

In the painting we see an old man dressed like a dervish of the old times, holding a ney flute in his hand and wearing a huge turban. There is a round shaped object hanging from his back, which according to some art historians, is a begging bowl used by dervishes. The colour of his dress is in contrast with the beautiful blue of the old tiles, reminding the tiles of Bursa mosques. There are five/six tortoises around his feet.

We don’t really know what was his inspiration for this painting but interpretations are many. One of those is that the old man symbolizes an Ottoman intellectual tired of trying to awake a sleeping society which strongly resists modernization and reforms. In other words, the trainer holding the ney flute in the painting is himself, opening museums and art institutions, to wake the people up with arts and science, but the changes are so little and slow that he is tired and almost hopeless.

Others say that the tortoises are his colleagues, slow and unwilling to share his enthusiasm for reforms. We don’t really know but still, this mystery makes the painting even more attractive.

This interesting paintings 1906 version is in Pera Museum and is considered to be one of the artistic gems of the country. And before we finish I want to add that, two great museums of Istanbul, Istanbul Modern and Pera Museum, fought over this painting in a state organized auction in 2004. And Pera Museum won the battle paying 3.5 millions USD for it. This was the highest amount paid for a Turkish painting in our history.

While in Istanbul, don’t forget to pay a visit to Tortoise Trainer.