A Quiet Afternoon in the Yali, Istanbul
Oil on canvas
75 x 61cm. / 29 ½ x 24 in
Private collection, England
La Perseveranza, 'Un po'di predica', Milan, 26 June 1876, no. 5987;
L’Illustration, Paris, 27 March 1876, no. 1735;
E. Filloneau, Le Moniteur des Arts, 'Salon de 1876', 19 March 1876, no. 1157;
R. Ménard, L'Art, Paris, 1876, vol. VI, p. 128;
M. Olivetti, Catalogue Populaire de l'Exposition Universelle et Internationale, Paris, 1878, no. 5;
E. Seletti, La citta di Busseto, capitale un tempo dello Stato Pallavicino, Milan, 1883, p. 295;
D. Donghi, Gazzetta del Popolo della Domenica, Turin, 31 December 1899, vol. XII; O. Roux, Illustri italiani contemporanei. Memorie giovanili autobiografiche, Florence, 1909-10, p.170
J. Copeau, L'Orient de Pasini, Paris, 1911, pp. 2 & 18, illustrated;
D. Soresina, Enciclopedia diocesana fidentina, I Personnaggi, Fidenza, 1961;
Lapi Ballerini, Antichità viva, ‘Comme si c'eût été Jerusalem', Florence, 1979, vol. XVIII, no. 3, p. 46, fig. 23, illustrated;
Vittoria Botteri Cardoso, Alberto Pasini, Geneva, 1991, pp. 318 & 319, no. 599, illustrated.
Paris, Salon de 1876, (Hors Concours), no. 1595, (as Le harem à la campagne, sur le Bosphore)
Pasini spent from 1867 to 1869 in Istanbul, a sojourn which would be the inspiration for a group of four pictures of odalisques in garden settings on the shores of the Golden Horn. Exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1876, the present work is characterized by rich and colourful costumes, azure blue skies, and an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. A psychological dimension is also introduced, in the form of the girl gazing out to sea. Whether she is watching someone or something, or dreaming of becoming a favourite in the Sultan's Harem just across the water, is left to the viewer to interpret.
Although contemporary critics referred to the setting of the painting as the Sultan's Harem, it in fact depicts the gardens of one of the grand country residences - or yalis ¬- built by the Grand Viziers, pashas, governors of provinces and other distinguished citizens as summer residences along the shores of the Bosporus. Among their responsibilities was to furnish the Sultan's harem with the new generation of women slaves or cariye. Sometimes as young as five when they were bought, the girls would be meticulously prepared for their office, being taught etiquette, religion, sociability, respectability, morality and music, before being offered to the Palace.
During this apprenticeship, they would dress in the ornate costumes they would later assume in the Palace, and be treated with reverence. In summer young protégés would accompany their master to his yali, where luscious gardens offered the perfect playground.
Olivetti remarked of the present work in 1878, '[Pasini] presents us with recluses in all their oriental coquettishness. These nonchalant ladies are immersed in the calm languor of their inverted virtuosity, wound up in the twisted trains of the costumes worn by the porcelain princesses of the extreme Orient'. But, as Ménard notes in his 1876 Salon review of the painting, what interested Pasini was less their status as kept women, than the makings of a sumptuous composition: 'the moral state of the inhabitants of the harem does not in the least preoccupy him, and to translate this in the figures would never have crossed his mind. The brilliant colours of the costumes allowed him to project into the landscape a certain happiness ... in sum, the painting is conceived gaily and forms a truly likeable whole.'
In reality, by the 1880s, the Sultan's future, and by consequence that of the Harem, was far from certain. The Empire's boundaries had shrunk dramatically in the first half of the nineteenth century. Local authorities openly opposed the central government, and by 1876, Sultan Abdül Hamid II reluctantly agreed to the first constitution in any Islamic country. The peaceful atmosphere in this Istanbul residence, whether consciously or unconsciously a celebration of the Sultanic order, belies the political ferment on the streets.