The beginning of the eighteenth century was the start of both opening to the Western world and increasing the necessary self-renovation efforts for the Ottoman Empire. Although this period during which cultural relations with Europe were increasing is named “the westernization” or “the renovation” period, it is much too complicated to be explained in a single phrase. In the beginning of this process, Ottoman Art progressed along a path balanced between the traditional and the new. Between the years 1703 and 1730, under the patronage of Sultan Ahmed III and his famous and powerful Grand Vizier, Nevşehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha, opportunities were provided in all art fields. As a result, extremely creative and productive artists began to appear.
Levni Abdülcelil Çelebi is the most accomplished and famous Ottoman painter of the early eighteenth century. Levni received the title of court painter under Sultan Mustafa II (r. 1695-1703) and Ahmet III (r. 1703-1730), for whom he executed his marvelously composed masterpieces. Levni is the artistic extension of the tendencies and directions summarized as “westernization” that started to appear in the beginning of the eighteenth century. His personality and artistic talent, and the period’s conditions have mutually affected each other, opening the way for a new point of view in the Ottoman art of painting.
There is not enough documentation on Levni’s origin and identity. One can shine light on his identity by looking at his work. There is only a short piece of information about Levni in the ‘Mecmua-i Tevarih’ that Hafız Hüseyin Ayvansarayî wrote in the second half of the eighteenth century. The author says that Levni Abdülcelil Çelebi, started work as the apprentice of an illuminator when he came to Istanbul from Edirne; that he showed progress in his work and became a master working in the saz style. Later that he was inspired to become a painter and he became the master of this field. Ayvansarayî continues to declare that he was the leading painter, until Sultan Mahmud Khan ascended the throne and depictions with perspective was introduced. The author states that Levni died in 1732, and that he is now buried across the Sadiler Tekkesi, opposite Aktürbe, near the Otakçılar Mosque. Ayvansarayî concludes that Levni also wrote poems and some other works. This information clarifies that the artist went to the palace atelier, nakkaşhane, when he arrived from Edirne, and at first worked in the saz style. Ayvansarayî does not mention when Levni came to Istanbul from Edirne. It is thought that Levni must have settle in Istanbul before 1710 and never left Istanbul after 1718.
Levni has made a series of sultans’ portraits, ending with that of Sultan Mustafa II’s for Demetrius Cantemir’s book, The History of the Growth and Decay of the Ottoman Empire. The originals of these engraved portraits printed in the book have not survived to our day. Kebir Musavver Silsilname (A3109) in the Topkapı Palace Museum Library is a series of sultans’ portraits that constitutes a turning point in Ottoman portraiture. While painting these portraits, ending with that of Sultan Ahmed III, Levni used creative novelties taking traditional elements as a base. He has introduced new understanding of painting his figures, compositions and his technique, in his miniatures that depict the circumcision ceremonies of Sultan Ahmed III’s heirs to the throne (1720). Surname-i Vehbi (A3593), in Topkapı Palace Museum Library, is named so after the poet of its text, Seyyid Vehbi. In this work there are 173 miniatures by Levni, exhibiting his talent for observation and his documentative attitude. Information on each page of the Surname-i Vehbi is given, yet details are included only about the miniatures which have been chosen due to both their distinction in the manuscript and the importance of the characters in the depicted scenes. Levni has also shown his sensitivity to the subject of human figures in an album of full body portraits now in the Topkapı Palace Museum Library (H.2164) of the period’s typical characters, depicted in his personal style.
Levni was both a painter and a poet; he has expressed his artistic personality both visually, in his paintings and rhythmically in his poems. The fact that the title ‘Çelebi’ is used with Levni’s name, shows that he was an educated, elegant, well mannered, respectable gentleman from a high social class within the Ottoman society. In one of his poems, the artist states that the pseudonym ‘Levni’ was attributed to him by others. Meaning both ‘colorful’ and ‘varied’, the name ‘Levni’ truly describes his personality reflected in his very colorful and diverse style. Levni’s poetry is a quality that makes his ‘special’. ‘Levni the Poet’ whose identity as a painter as a poet and who occupies only a small passage in literature books as an unexceptional folk poet, takes his deserved place in literature books as an unexceptional folk poet, takes his deserved place in literary history with his collected works.
The point of view developed by Levni has both influenced later artists and opened a path of innovations in the Ottoman art of depiction. Levni’s high skill in expressing his open minded character has made him a key figure in a turning point of Ottoman art history, making him the subject of a research bearing interesting results.
Reference: Gül İrepoğlu, Levni, Painting poetry colour, Istanbul 1999.
Some selected examples (please click on pictures to enlarge):