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New Textile Museum exhibition chronicles how an empire branded itself
Square Ottoman-design carpet. Probably Cairo, Egypt. First half of the 17th century. TM R16.4.1, Acquired by George Hewitt Myers in 1924.
WASHINGTON, DC.- This September, The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. opened “The Sultan’s Garden: The Blossoming of Ottoman Art” (September 21, 2012–March 10, 2013). The exhibition and its accompanying catalog chronicles how one of the world’s most powerful empires adopted a singular artistic style and how that style gained lasting influence. Just as the brands of today strive to do—from political candidates to consumer products—the Ottoman Empire represented itself at home and abroad through a single, instantly recognizable visual aesthetic. The stylized tulips, roses, carnations, and other flowers came to embody the influence of the empire, and continue to epitomize the arts of Turkey.

Through 58 works of art drawn from the best of The Textile Museum’s collections and private and institutional loans “The Sultan’s Garden” reveals the lasting impact of this stylistic revolution.

Debut of the “Floral Style”
Ottoman art reflects the wealth, abundance, and influence of an empire which spanned seven centuries and, at its height, three continents. Ottoman court style developed during successions of sultans and changes in the court’s design workshop. Prior to 1550, Ottoman art had primarily employed an artistic language common to the greater Islamic world and frequently depicted geometrical designs, fantastical animals, and flora. However, under Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566), a single artist—Kara Memi—introduced a new design repertoire inspired by forms found in nature. The stylized tulips, carnations, hyacinths, honeysuckles, roses, and rosebuds immediately gained popularity across a broad range of media, carrying connotations of Ottoman court patronage, luxury, and high taste.

A Style which Blossomed Across the Empire
An age-old Turkish, and specifically Ottoman, fascination with flowers accounts in part for the widespread adoption of this new artistic style. Flowers and flower gardens were an important feature of Ottoman upper class and court culture. In the sultan’s palace, flowers embellished architectural tiles, opulent textiles (such as velvets), and monumental carpets. While abundant at court, trade also introduced nomadic communities in the far reaches of the empire to the floral style. Despite being far from the capital city, and far from ornamental gardens, artisans in small villages and nomadic encampments emulated these stylized blooms. The floral style continues to embody Turkish culture: Turkey’s tourism bureau markets the nation with a tulip logo.

International Influence
The floral style on view in “The Sultan’s Garden” has had a lasting impact over the past four centuries on the later Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey, the broader Islamic world, and Europe. Court workshops exported luxury items to European customers whose own economies lacked either the technology, tradition, or access to materials to produce such goods themselves. For example, in Russia, there was no local capability to weave the complex patterned silks made popular by the Ottoman Empire, so fabric was imported and adapted. Included in the exhibition is a collar from a liturgical cope made in Russia, but embroidered with Ottoman flowers. Floral style patterns also appear on costumes in Italian Renaissance portraiture and influenced designers of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Great Britain, including William Morris.



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