Rasim was one of the first and most renowned Turkish female painters.
Rassim was one of the most intriguing Turkish artists of her day — but she was
known more for her eccentric lifestyle than for her art.
her royal upbringing by running away from home to pursue an arts education, and
to secure the freedoms that the Ottoman Empire didn’t provide to women in the
She was a
pioneer, opening the first art college for women in Turkey, and encouraged
artists for decades. And she was a cunning marketer who sometimes bent the
truth about her artwork as a way to support herself when the going got rough.
“She was an
avant-garde artist whose most avant-garde work was her own life,” said the art
historian Ozlem Gulin Dagoglu, who is writing a monograph on her.
representative of an era toward the end of the Ottoman Empire when the
daughters of the elite were encouraged to learn about art, literature and music
but then limited to becoming art teachers, if they were fortunate to have
careers at all. Historians are now trying to piece together the stories of
their lives; an exhibition of Rassim’s work was held this year at the SALT
Galata, an art institution in Istanbul.
born on Dec. 13, 1885, in Istanbul. She used variations of her name throughout
her life. Her father, Ahmed Rasim Pasha, was a military doctor; her mother,
Fatma Nesedil Hanim, was an Abkhazian princess. Mihri began painting when she
was young, taking lessons from Fausto Zonaro, the Italian court painter for the
ruling sultan, Abdul Hamid II.
time, there were no college-level art schools for women in the Ottoman Empire,
so Rassim left her family in about 1906 to study at the Académie de France in
Rome and the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Recognized for
her skill in portraiture, she went on to paint many powerful men.
Europe, she worked with John Singer Sargent, Léon Bonnat, Albert Besnard,
Arthur Kampf, Rudolf Bacher and other painters, and she met and married Musfik
Selami Bey, a Sorbonne student who later became a diplomat of the new Turkish
moved back to Istanbul in 1912. It was a good time to return. Most forms of
Western art had been banned there for centuries, but the winds of change that
had helped nation-states sprout across Europe were transforming Turkey as well.
an opportunity to propose that an art school be established for women. “Ideas
of freedom, equality, justice, comradeship have arrived in our country,” she
was quoted as saying in addressing the minister of education in 1914, “but why
is it only men that are benefiting from them?”
of Fine Arts for Women opened the next year, with Rassim at the helm, alongside
the painter Omer Adil Bey.
tutelage, Muslim women were able to paint landscapes en plein air, and draw
from nude female models as well as antique statues,” Dagoglu, the art
seated front row, fifth from left, in about 1919 with fellow students and
teachers at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where she
was recognized for her skill in portraiture.
Rassim helped start the careers of artists like Fahrelnissa Zeid, who became
known for her large-scale abstract paintings, she still yearned to be
recognized for her own artwork. It was a sentiment she expressed in 1919, when
she organized a show of paintings in her home and was interviewed by the
journalist Mehmed Zekeriya Sertel for Buyuk Mecmua magazine.
criticized the limitations that her conservative society had imposed on women,
preventing them from becoming better painters. It was frowned upon, for
instance, for women to paint in public.
why women mostly painted friends and acquaintances in interiors,” Dagoglu said.
brushed off her portraiture as “worthless” and insinuated in the interview that
she wished she had better work to show. “I am ashamed to call this my oeuvre,”
she was quoted as saying.
most of these paintings you see here for commerce,” she added.
1919, when the Allied powers occupied Istanbul in the wake of World War I,
Rassim went back to Rome, divorced her husband and mingled with the fascist
cultural elite under the fast-rising Benito Mussolini. She became friendly with
the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio and the sculptor Renato Brozzi, and through their
connections she painted a portrait of Mussolini himself.
tried to open an art academy for Turkish students in Rome and painted a
portrait of the new Turkish president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, to convince him
of her abilities and perhaps to charm him. Unable to gain his favor, though,
she left Europe in 1927 for the United States to pursue her artistic ambitions
there. She found work as a high school art teacher in Connecticut.
“I did not
come to the United States as a famished immigrant to make money,” she wrote in
1935 in a letter to Hamilton Holt, the dean of Rollins College, near Orlando,
Fla., “but had an ideal in mind: to be considered among the talented people.”
offered her a teaching job, but she wasn’t able to accept it because of her
immigrant woman artist, the post-Depression era was especially hard for
Rassim,” Dagoglu said, “but she was a resilient and resourceful artist with a
knack for marketing.”
“To My Dear
Vecih, Istanbul Memory” (1920), a self-portrait by Rassim.CreditYapi Kredi
sought to build a career, she moved to New York, where she highlighted her
Turkish nobility, calling herself Princess Alciba, her Abkhazian family name.
She held salons at her Manhattan home and participated in group and solo
exhibitions in galleries.
1932, for the poet Edwin Markham’s 80th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall,
she presented him with his portrait as a gift in front of 2,000 people.
her moderate success, she struggled to support herself. In September 1932, to
pay her debtors, the New York City marshal auctioned off her portrait of
Franklin D. Roosevelt for $40 ($688 in today’s dollars). She had valued the painting
at $2,000 (about $37,500 today).
said that after Thomas Edison died in 1931, Rassim tried to sell a portrait of
him to his family, saying in a letter that he had posed for her. But Dagoglu
found that she had actually based the painting on a photograph.
portrait, showing Edison deep in thought in his lab, was rediscovered in 2011
and is now at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College.
she married Salvatore Virzi, a singer at the Metropolitan Opera. She became an
American citizen in 1943.
in 1954. She was about 69. She was believed to have been buried in a potter’s
field in or near New York, but Dagoglu was unable to find any records of any of
the names that Rassim might have used.
Many of the
paintings she made in the United States are considered missing — she was a poor
record keeper and newspaper accounts say that her studio was once robbed — but,
like the Edison painting, they are slowly being found.
One of her
later portraits, of Rezzan Yalman, the wife of the prominent Turkish journalist
Ahmed Emin Yalman, whom Rassim befriended in the early 1940s in New York, was
recently discovered in a private family collection. It was included in the SALT
Galata exhibition in Istanbul.
Gencalp, a filmmaker who had helped put together that exhibit, is working on a
documentary about Rassim, titled “Kim Mihri” (“Who Is Mihri?”), which is
expected to be released next year.
know if she achieved all her goals,” Gencalp said in an interview, “but she
definitely came ‘to be considered among the talented.’”
Headline: Overlooked No More: Mihri Rassim, Feminist Artist in the Ottoman
Source: The New York Times