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    Thadeus Dowad
    Center 41

    Thadeus Dowad

    Border Regimes: European Portraiture and Ottoman Modernity, 1789–1841


    Sir David Wilkie, His Highness Muhemed Ali, Pacha of Egypt, 1841, oil paint on board, Tate Britain, London, Bequeathed by the Earl of Effingham 1927. Photo © Tate 

    On May 11, 1841, the Scottish painter Sir David Wilkie (1785–1841) arrived at Ra’as al-Tīn Palace outside of Alexandria for his final portrait sitting with the aging but ever-powerful viceroy of Ottoman Egypt, Mehmed Ali Pasha. Wilkie’s completed painting of the pasha clad in the uniform of his modernized Egyptian military is an intimate and nimbly executed portrayal that leaves little trace of the pressures exerted on the artist by his demanding Ottoman patron. In the detailed account of the sittings found in Wilkie’s travel diary, the painter reveals Mehmed Ali’s sophisticated understanding of the principles of modern European portraiture and the remarkable extent to which the pasha controlled (sometimes from directly over the artist’s shoulder) the choices of pose, costume, and even brushwork. At one point, Wilkie recalls, Mehmed Ali challenged the artist for his overly broad application of paint around the eyes, which the pasha insisted “ought to be made stronger.”  

    Since the publication of Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism (1978), art historians have developed a reflex for interpreting images of Islamic subjects by European artists. In this scheme, the latter is understood to produce the “Orient” as an imagined but coherent cultural space through the objectifying powers of the artist’s gaze, pencil, and brush. Both symptom and engine of European imperialism in Muslim Asia and North Africa, the Orientalist artist is master of his subject, whose voice in the making of his own image is always rendered mute. Wilkie’s portrait, however, tells a very different story—one whose “Oriental” subject was anything but silent. 

    Painted in the final year of a decade-long military struggle between the viceroy and his titular sovereign, the Ottoman sultan, this portrait was part of the pasha’s postwar strategy to garner British favor at the expense of his rival in Istanbul. Aware that the sultan had sat for a portrait by Wilkie several months prior, Mehmed Ali strategically tapped the artist to represent him as a competing image of Ottoman authority. The portrait was therefore conceived as a direct riposte to the sultan’s; Wilkie’s diary repeatedly mentions Mehmed Ali’s requests to examine the earlier portrait. Recalling the pasha’s careful management of Wilkie’s hand, certain features of the painting appear to be specifically designed to invoke this intra-Ottoman rivalry. For example, the pasha’s red fez, the largest flash of color in the painting, was an emblem of Ottoman modernity first introduced by Mehmed Ali himself through his overhaul of the Egyptian military. This distinctive headwear was only later adopted by the sultan and his bureaucracy in Istanbul as part of a slate of military reforms modeled on the pasha’s. Through the fez, Mehmed Ali reminded the portrait’s European audience that he was the true forward-looking leader in the Ottoman realm—and hence more worthy of diplomatic favor. Beyond inverting the power dynamics of the Orientalist painting, then, Mehmed Ali’s patronage of Wilkie points to the particularities of the Ottoman political context that made the encounter between artist and viceroy, as well as the resulting painting, historically meaningful. Wilkie’s portrait, in other words, brings us to an important realization: there is an Ottoman history of European portraiture.  


    Thadeus Dowad visiting the Aslanhane Mosque in Ankara, Turkey, during his fieldwork in the Middle East, 2019

    Set at a crossroads in global history, when the Ottoman Empire was vying for a seat in the emergent European federation and the two great European empires (France and Britain) were expanding their dominions across the Islamic world, my dissertation argues that portraiture served as a common pictorial space for articulating modern political subjectivities that transgressed any imagined barrier between West and East. Moving across metropolitan centers, like Paris and Istanbul, as well as colonial spaces, such as French-occupied Cairo, my study braids Ottoman appropriations of European portraiture with a related turn among European artists and patrons toward Islamo-Ottoman cultural forms. The former manifests a distinctly Ottoman regime of politics whereas the latter represents a contested refashioning of European identity in the age of imperialism. 

    I argue that both Ottoman and European portraiture of this period functioned as border regimes: systems essential to calibrating, classifying, and demarcating cultural differences and affiliations. Through this concept, I demonstrate that the integration of “foreign” artistic forms did not erase borders but rather produced new ones. As a result, I advocate interpreting these ostensibly cosmopolitan artistic efforts as instances of cultural hybridization, serving as a pliant mechanism of empire building throughout Ottoman and European space. To grapple with these historical border regimes is to simultaneously pry into art history’s disciplinary barriers (especially the separation of Islamic and European art histories), and my dissertation is fueled by a commitment to reconsider the field’s active zones of analysis. 

    [University of California, Berkeley] 
    Paul Mellon Fellow, 2018–2021

    Following his fellowship, Thadeus Dowad will join the Department of Art History at Northwestern University as an assistant professor of global 18th- and 19th-century art.  

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