The most celebrated modern Turkish painter

Art Nilanjan Hajra
Turkish painter

Fahrelnissa Zeid was perhaps the most celebrated Turkish painter of the 20th century. Over a painting career of more than five decades, she used her art as an instrument to explore the spiritual and physical realities of her life.

While she was an avant-garde artist, it is difficult to box her works into any single category or school. She has experimented liberally with abstraction, Expressionism, Baroque, and Fauvism. Her first marriage was an unhappy union, and throughout her life, she also suffered from acute mental depression. Both of these influenced her art. Fahrelnissa’s painting Atom and Vegetal Life holds the record of fetching the highest price for any painting by a Muslim artist. It sold for $ 2.74 million by Christies.

Life and times of Turkish painter Fahrelnissa

The great Turkish painter was born as Fahrunissa Sakir, on January 7, 1901, in the Buyukada island, near Istanbul. Her father Sakir Pasha was an Ottoman ambassador to Greece. Her mother was Sara Ismat Hanim. Her uncle Cevat Pasha was the grand vizier of the Ottoman empire between 1891 and 1895. Thus, Fahrelnissa came from an elite family.

The Turkish painter took to her art at an early age. And one of her earliest works, which has survived, was a portrait of her grandmother which she drew at the age of 14. At the age of 19 she married novelist Izzet Mellih Devrim. The Turkish painter was exposed to proper European art when the couple moved to Venice. Later, she received formal training in painting in Academie Ranson, Paris, and the Istanbul Academy of Fine Arts. Fahrelnissa had three children by her first husband. However, the marriage feel through, and she divorced Devrim in 1934. Soon she married prince Zeid bin Hussein of Iraq. Her first personal exhibition was held in 1945.

Fahrelnissa Zeid’s art 

Around 1941 the Turkish painter had returned to Istanbul. And during this time, she became involved with D-Group, an Avant-Garde group of artists, who were giving various new directions to Turkish art, encouraged by the formation of the new Turkish Republic under Kemal Ataturk. Her art-form took a new turn after she moved to London with her husband Zeid, on his being appointed the first Ambassador of the Kingdom of Iraq. She moved towards abstraction. Renowned French art critic and curator Charles Estienne praised and backed her art. The Turkish painter was exhibited as part of the first exhibition of the Nouvelle Ecole de Paris in 1952.

The life and art of the Turkish painter took a major jolt, and turn, when in July 1958 a military coup overthrew the Iraqi monarchy. The Zeid family narrowly escaped death and the coup leaders gave it 24 hours to vacate the embassy. The family nearly lost everything, and moved to an apartment in London. Fahrelnissa cooked the first meal when she was 57. It led to her painting of chicken bones. This she soon adopted into a new form of sculpture from casting the bones in resin, called ‘paleokrystalos’.

Over the next three decades the Turkish painter renewed drawing portraits, alongside her experiments with abstraction. She was also able to organize several solo exhibitions, mostly in Turkey. After her husband’s death she moved to Amman, in Jordan, where her youngest son Prince Raad settled after marriage. The great Turkish painter died on September 5, 1991.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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