Silk Embroidery, Ottoman, 1299 AD – 1923 AD
Ottoman Silk Embroidery – The art of embroidery, especially that using silk as a long history in Oriental textile production reaching well back into the Islamic past into Central Asia, and ultimately to China, the source of all silk production. The early Seljuk Turks, when they first arrived in Persia and Anatolia between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries, must have brought the art of silk embroidery with them from their Central Asian homeland.
By the time the Osmanli or Ottoman Turks became a major power in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, silk embroidery was well established in Turkey as a luxury court production, often made within the harem of the sultan in the Topkapi Palace itself. The silk embroideries of this early period still tended to reflect the style and taste of more easterly silk embroideries produced in Persia and Central Asia.
Yet even in this early time, the largely floral designs tended to be extremely suave and naturalistic, departing somewhat from the more abstract approach of mainstream Islamic ornament.
In the course of time, however, the naturalism of Turkish embroidery increased markedly, undoubtedly in response to Turkish exposure to European artistic styles and tastes. Between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries, the Ottoman Turkish Empire controlled much of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. For a good deal of this period, Turkish territory was no more than a day’s ride or sail from Venice.
So it is not surprising that Turkish embroideries and other textiles came increasingly to reflect the taste of their European competitors. The newly acquired eighteenth-century Ottoman silk embroidery in the Nazmiyal Collection beautifully exemplifies this trend. The design consists of highly naturalistic floral sprays in delicate shades of pink and red arranged in staggered rows across a soft blue silk ground.
The stems of the flowers are rendered in raised relief using metallic gold thread. At the center of the composition is a radial spray of multiple flowers, some of which are shown in open or rosette view accented with a saffron color. Collectively this radial spray functions as an approximately diamond shaped medallion at the center of the entire composition, but its effect is subtle. In the same way a subtle border is produced by continuous stems of flowers that run all around the periphery of the piece. The delicacy of the drawing and the coloration is enhanced by the luminous effects of the silk and metal used throughout the textile.
The western European artistic influences behind such Turkish textiles are not far to seek. During the eighteenth century, the technological advances in European warfare and armament had tipped the balance of power against Ottoman Turkey, and as result Europeans began to develop an attitude of superiority toward the Islamic world, especially toward the Turks.
In consequence, Europeans were no longer attracted by exotic Islamic textiles and rugs, and began to develop their own rug and textile furnishings in naturalistic, classically derived style. This development produced the great Aubusson and Savonnerie carpets, and their imitations in Austria and Eastern Europe, as well as a host of tapestry and embroidered textiles of similar artistic inspiration. As reflex elite Turkish taste began yielding increasingly to the assertive new European sensibilities, as the Nazmiyal embroidery clearly discloses. Its soft coloration and highly naturalistic mode of depiction undoubtedly reflect the style of Aubusson tapestry and kindred European textiles.
In the course of the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, wealthy Turkish interiors came to follow fully the standards of European interior design and furnishings. Western influence even became discernible on a more popular, folkloric level of production during the nineteenth century.
This accounts for the highly naturalistic style of the Bessarabian Kilim or tapestry rugs of the northeast Balkan region, or the related flatweave and pile carpets in a naturalistic style produced in the Karabagh region of Armenia under Turkish rule (Antique Bessarabian Rug 41272). In this regard, the Nazmiyal embroidery represents the cutting edge in the transformation of Turkish taste a century earlier. It is in any case an eloquent testament to the exquisite standards of technique and design of Ottoman court textile production.