Portraying Nippur: Artist Osman Hamdi Bey’s Early Relationship with the Penn Museum

June 24, 2015

The Penn Museum is perhaps best known for its impressively large and varied collection of artifacts spanning practically the entirety of human existence, but recently visitors were given a special chance to step into the Museum Archives to learn about some unexpected items housed in the Museum—two paintings and the unique ties they have to the Museum’s earliest days.

Osman Hamdi Bey (seated) with original Nippur excavation director J.P. Peters

On Friday, May 22, I attended an “Unearthed in the Archives” public presentation hosted by Alex Pezzati, Senior Archivist at the Penn Museum, on Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910), renowned Turkish artist, archaeologist, and Ottoman administrator, and his unique relationship with the Museum. Currently, the two paintings by Hamdi Bey that reside at the Penn Museum can’t be found in the public galleries. I learned that each of the paintings holds a unique story, covering both their time within the Museum and outside its walls.

Pezzati began our talk in the Museum’s historic Archives, a portion of the Museum many visitors do not see during their time here; public access is typically by appointment. The room that houses the Archives was originally constructed in 1899 to serve as the Museum’s library. As I walked down a long, narrow hallway and passed through the Archives’ heavy iron doors, I felt like I stepped back in time. Black wooden shelves line the perimeter of the room at two levels, connected by beautiful spiral staircases to a balcony that wraps the room. Box after box fill the shelves, holding the documentation behind the Museum’s excavations and expeditions, providing information on the Museum’s practices throughout its history, and having an historical intrigue all their own.

"At the Mosque Door"
“At the Mosque Door”

Before talking about Hamdi Bey’s works at the Museum, Pezzati provided our group with a brief background on the beloved artist. Hamdi Bey was an art expert and painter from Istanbul (former Constantinople) then in the Ottoman Empire (now modern-day Turkey), whose passions for both art and archaeology laid the groundwork for his unique relationship with the Penn Museum. As founder of both the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul and the Istanbul Academy of Fine Arts (now known as the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts), Hamdi Bey developed the profession of the museum curator in Turkey.

I learned that “At the Mosque Door” was in the Museum Archives since the department was set up in the late 1970s, known to some scholars but not the general public. It was purchased by the Museum in 1895 after being displayed in multiple exhibitions, as a way to incur favor with Hamdi Bey, and obtain a share of the finds from the Museum’s earliest excavations in ancient Nippur, located in present-day Iraq.

Several distinct figures appear in the painting’s foreground, but a closer look supports the consensus that many of these figures are in fact the artist himself!

The painting’s journey to Philadelphia began when Hamdi Bey created the piece, along with one other, to be shown at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. However, before making it to Chicago the painting was shipped to France in 1892 for inclusion in the Palais de l’Industrie. After its time in Chicago, the painting made its way to Philadelphia where it was eventually acquired by the Penn Museum.

The group views “The Excavations of the University Museum at Nippur, Mesopotamia” in the office of the Museum’s Williams Director.

Next, our group was offered a unique treat as Pezzati led us to the office of  Dr. Julian Siggers, the Willams Director of the Museum, to view and discuss the second painting by the artist. “The Excavations of the University Museum at Nippur, Mesopotamia,” painted in 1903, depicts the Penn Museum’s late 19th century excavation of Nippur, a Mesopotamian city. It was this excavation that led to the founding of the Penn Museum.

Although Hamdi Bey was not present at the excavation, he recreated the scene using an 1893 photograph of the site taken by John Henry Haynes, the excavation’s field director and an early archaeological photographer. However, the painting is not an exact copy of its inspiration. Hamdi Bey made several deviations from the photograph, including changing the image’s borders and adding several lone figures, including Assyriologist and friend Hermann Vollrath Hilprecht, who oversaw the excavation’s progress. The painting remained in the Hilprecht family until it was loaned to the Penn Museum in 1930 and ultimately donated in 1948.

As compelling and integral as these two pieces are to the founding of the Penn Museum, “At the Mosque Door” flew under the radar in the Archives for several years, until Museum staff was presented with an exciting new initiative to dig deeper than ever into the artist’s history.

The photo behind the painting: “The Excavations of the University Museum at Nippur, Mesopotamia” was inspired by this image of an excavated temple.

“[T]he signature and date were clear, and it was cataloged accordingly in our inventories.  It wasn’t until the Nippur painting came up from Near East Section storage, circa 1989, that the Archives staff delved more into Osman Hamdi,” Pezzati said. “It was finally Dr. Robert Ousterhout, after being presented with these works, who envisioned that [“At the Mosque Door”] could be restored and exhibited again.”

Since its “rediscovery” in the Archives, “At the Mosque Door” has certainly made up for the years it spent resting behind those iron doors. Along with “The Excavations of the University Museum at Nippur, Mesopotamia,” it was first put on display at the Penn Museum’s own “Archaeologists and Travelers in Ottoman Lands” exhibition before appropriately traveling back to Hamdi Bey’s homeland for an exhibition named “Osman Hamdi and the Americans” in Istanbul’s Pera Museum. Finally, the latter of the two works found its permanent home in the Williams Director’s office.

While the Penn Museum is known for its excavations that span the world over, its collection of works by Hamdi Bey prove that sometimes great treasures are more close by than we think, just waiting to be “unearthed in the archives.”

Hannah Effinger is an intern in the Public Relations Office.