The Ottoman Empire Modelled in Porcelain: The Art of Jean-Baptiste Vanmour (1671-1737)

By Nefedova, Olga | Ceramics Art & Perception, September 2010 | Go to article overview

The Ottoman Empire Modelled in Porcelain: The Art of Jean-Baptiste Vanmour (1671-1737)


Nefedova, Olga, Ceramics Art & Perception


THE 18TH CENTURY IN WESTERN EUROPE IS CHARACTERIZED by radical changes in its political and social life. The significance of this historical epoch was reflected in the epithet received: The Age of Enlightenment. In the work What is Enlightenment?, written in 1784, German philosopher Emmanuel Kant formulated the essence and the purpose of the epoch through the motto Sapere aude, that is "dare to know". (1) And indeed during the 18th century the basic signs of the time were rapid development of natural sciences, an increase of interest in scientific and philosophical knowledge outside of cabinets and laboratories of scientists--that is, widely comprehensive thirst for knowledge. Adventures, travels to far off lands, aspirations to get into the 'other' cultural spaces were the main characteristics of The Age of Enlightenment. So it is quite coherent that the special interest of the themes of the Islamic East arose during that time. The contemporary of the epoch, one of the 'artists of the Bosporus' Franco-Flemish master Jean-Baptiste Vanmour, in his role as artist-biographer and eyewitness of the 18th century Ottoman Empire, left a very important legacy of pictorial evidence that can be considered as historically accurate illustrations of all aspects of 18th century Ottoman life--from diplomatic ceremonies in the Ottoman court to everyday events of Istanbul's multinational society--during the Tulip Era, as the reign of Sultan Ahmed III (r. 1703-30) was called.

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Vanmour was born in Valenciennes (Flanders) on 9 January 1671 into the family of Simon Vanmour (1650-?) and Marie Lebrun. (2) The Vanmour family tradition prepared Jean-Baptiste for being an artist, which was quite common for that time. Apart from its financial benefits, allowing control of the local art market, it supported a high-quality education and the continuity of family art traditions from generation to generation. The father of the artist was an escrinier, or master cabinet maker. One of his brothers, Simon-Pierre, was trained by his father and followed in his footsteps. Another brother, Louis, was a sculptor. (3) His father and younger brothers also belonged to the Guild of St. Luke, the city guild for painters and other artists. No art works by Vanmour from his Valenciennes period are known to have survived; nothing is known of his early training and little of his early years in his native town. The story of his early years is based mainly on the only known document of significance, a record of the court case proceedings in 1690 between Vanmour and representatives of the Guild of St. Luke of Valenciennes. The Guild, which had the power of regulating and defining types of trade within the city, accused the artist of selling his works directly to the public while not being a guild member and this also led to the confiscation of Vanmour's artwork. The court case was probably one of the reasons for Vanmour's leaving his native city and his subsequent travel to Istanbul.

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It is not known where Vanmour went from Valenciennes, nor for how long (or whether) he lived in Paris before departing to Istanbul. It is indeed very possible that he sojourned in Paris since many artists seeking better fortune and employment passed from Antwerp through Valenciennes to the capital, where a very large Flemish art community existed. The grounds for Vanmour's trip are unknown and the event of the lawsuit was just one of the possible reasons. The date of his trip also remains a mystery. Information of the artist's possible departure to Istanbul as a member of the diplomatic embassy of the French ambassador Charles de Ferriol was mentioned for the first time in Vanmour's obituary in the newspaper Mercure de France in June 1737: "M. de Ferriol l'y avoir attire en 1699 pour lui faire pindre d'apres nature . …

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