Sargis Poghosyan Ur Essay

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Figure 1 Garabed Nichanian, Provincial Armenian Wedding in Moush, 1886/1890
Albumen print, 22 x 28.7 cm,
(approximate size of painting 150 x 200 cm, present location unknown)
Photograph courtesy of AGBU Nubar Library, Paris

1The idea behind this essay was hatched during an extended period of research in the archives of the AGBU Nubar Library in Paris, and in response to encounters with a text and a photograph during the course of a single week. The text, an uncharacteristically long piece of art criticism1 by Ottoman Armenian Realist vanguard Levon Pashalian (1868-1943)2, writing under the pseudonym Taparig (Թափառիկ)3, published in the popular and influential Constantinople Armenian daily Arevelk on 28 July under the title A Provincial Wedding (Գաւառական Հարսնիք Մը)4, reviewed a single painting by the Constantinople artist Garabed Nichanian (1861-1950)5. This was followed a few days later by the discovery of an albumen photographic print of an unnamed painting, with the words “Celebration des noces” scribbled on the back in pencil, and added later in ink, in Armenian, «հայկական հարսանիք» (“Armenian wedding”) [see figure 1].6 The detailed rendering and description provided in Taparig’s article was instrumental in helping instantly identify the painting in the photograph beyond doubt. This was subsequently confirmed by three black and white reproductions of the painting published during the artist’s lifetime: the first, a mirror image of the painting that appeared in the Tiflis7 Russian Armenian journal Tadron, with the caption Wedding of Mshetsis8 (Մշեցոց Հարսանիք) in 18999 [see figure 10]; the second, in the art and culture journal Keghouni, published in Venice, titled Wedding in Daron10 (Հարսանիք Տարօնի Մէջ) in 190111; and some time later reproduced in the French Orientalist Frederic Macler’s (1869-1938) La France et l’Arménie: à travers l’art et l’histoire in 1917, captioned Mariage arménien à Mouch.12

2Since its publication by Macler, the sole reference to the painting has been art historian Shahen Khachatryan’s following passing remarks:

The thematic canvas Armenian Wedding in Moush is one of Nichanian’s noteworthy works, which has been reprinted in F[rederic] Macler’s 1917 book France and Armenia Through Art and History. This picture, that adheres to classical fine art principles and has a simple structure, represents an Armenian hearth, with participants of wedding celebrations. On the canvas ancient folk traditions have received a live embodiment. Alongside the depicted persons’ natural movements, the viewer’s attention is captured by their national costume and daily (կենցաղի) objects. The author lives their beauty and has strived to accentuate them. […] The expression (բացահայտում) of national characteristics and refined, pure human emotions are the enticing values of Nichanian’s canvasses.13

3This sketchy evaluation, based on Macler’s reproduction of Nichanian’s Wedding14, while offering the odd valid observation, only scratches the surface. The purpose of this essay, itself the product of a conspiracy between accident, curiosity, serendipity and method, is to counter such simplistic accounts, where everything is projected through a distorted, “national”, lens, by delving deep. Careful and nuanced readings of the painting also aim to forestall the indiscriminate, hasty and superficial blanket application of overarching labels such as “Orientalist”, “Realist” or “provincial” when considering work such as Nichanian’s Wedding. These problematic terms often serve to obscure the real questions, which can be broached only through in-depth interrogation. While, for example, Nichanian’s Wedding’s “Eastern” setting, elaborate ethnographic detail and native colour might invite comparisons to Western “Orientalist” painting the artist’s complex identities and environment make such a designation anything but straightforward.15 A “Realist” label, meanwhile, encouraged by Nichanian’s proximity to Pashalian and Arevelk, is similarly complicated considering the artist’s representation not of his familiar urban cosmopolitan Pera, but instead of an imagined provincial scene, with the very word “provincial” pointing to distance and a vantage point of a perceived centre looking outwards, towards a peripheral location.

4This essay proposes Nichanian’s Wedding as a representation of Ottoman Armenia as imagined from the vantage point of a Constantinople intellectual produced at a critical moment in Ottoman history, the late 1880s, when the various facets of the Ottoman State’s interrelationship with its Armenian subjects took on an especially perilous turn.16 The situating of the artist at the heart of the late nineteenth century Ottoman Armenian Realist17milieu alongside two of its luminaries, Pashalian and the editor, writer and activist Arpiar Arpiarian (1852-1908), allows us to hold the Wedding as mirror to the manifestation of Realism among this group of intellectuals, in relation to two central, deeply intertwined, themes of preoccupation: the socio-economic and political situation in Ottoman Armenia, and the large-scale migration of impoverished peasants, bantoukhds (պանդուխտներ)18 to the big city, especially Constantinople in search of work, known as the phenomenon of bantkhdoutioun (պանդխտութիւն)19. Thus accepted truths, about a movement erroneously viewed solely as literary, and accounts, that ignore the fundamentally visual roots of Realism, are challenged in this essay. As Peter Brooks has explained, realism, as a term is resolutely attached to the visual, initially appearing as a critical and polemical term in the early 1850s, to characterize the French artist Gustave Courbet’s (1819-1877) painting and only then, by extension, taken to describe a literary style.20 This discussion, therefore, breaks with dominant canonical texts on Ottoman Armenian Realism by delving into the hitherto untested waters of visual art production and art criticism.

5For the Constantinople Realists of the 1880s and 1890s, bantkhdoutioun represented the physical embodiment of Ottoman Armenia on the streets of the imperial capital. The introduction of a second art critical text, published in 1882, read closely alongside Pashalian’s review, is aimed at elucidating the above interrelationship during a decade of shifting and complex developments in the ideological positions of the Abdülhamid II regime and of various Ottoman Armenian identities, while underscoring the need for a nuanced and historically specific framework of analysis. The determinacy of Nichanian’s Wedding, of uncovering the artist’s intentions and social consciousness21 is explored via the seeking out of biographical and other clues22 and navigation through the complex landscape of the artist’s multifaceted identities. These coalesce into, and are brought to bear upon, our reading of Nichanian’s Wedding as barometer of its specific historical moment. Finally the essay hopes to grapple with ever-shifting environments and ecosystems23 of the image’s habitation, the various material forms that it has occupied as image, the multiplicity of vantage points that have influenced the work’s varied captioning and interpretation over time and space (e.g. Constantinople [1890], Chicago [1892], Tiflis [1899], Venice [1901], Paris [1917]), and its reception by audiences, both intended and unintended, and conduits of interpretation encompassing art critics, government censors, collectors and a wider audience within and outside the Ottoman Empire.24 Determining meanings, where every description is in effect ineluctably interpretive, are intrinsically connected to these shifting contexts.25

6This essay scrutinizes an image (and its mediations and translations) hitherto deemed insignificant by historiography, in the hope of reintroducing traces and reflections of men and women who are absent from and ignored by the grand narratives of art history.26 In my mind, Nichanian’s Wedding constitutes a landmark in nineteenth century Ottoman art, if only in terms of sheer ambition, scope, content and scale. This is a monumental painting, unusually produced outside usual channels of patronage of Palace or other elites, the fruit of a native professional artist’s own initiative and ideas, and, as far as known, never exhibited in public.27 At the moment of Pashalian’s viewing, it was already an actor in complex intellectual, ideological and commercial networks of exchange. Its almost total exclusion from art historiography, of never having been awarded anything resembling serious consideration since Pashalian’s 1890 review (owing admittedly in part to the absence of the original painting28) is particularly glaring, and highlights the deeply problematic nature of nationalist Armenian and Turkish art historiographies, and the failure thus far of Western-centric art histories in their engagement with non-Western, in this instance Ottoman, art production in any meaningful manner.29

7In closing, to represent the nineteenth century cultural and art history of the Ottoman imperial capital without its native Armenian agents – architects, artists, photographers, writers, patrons, commercial networks, etc. – is akin to writing the history of fin-de-siècle Vienna without its Jewish actors.30 Yet this is the prevalent approach of still dominant reductive nation-centric art histories, whose tenets are only recently being eroded and dismantled.31 The material presented here, provides a counterpoint to these artificial histories, whether Turkish, Armenian, or other, through firstly, extensive and privileged use of a wealth of Ottoman Armenian and other Armenian language sources, a hitherto untapped resource by art historiography; secondly, through the appropriation of an emic approach from an anthropological toolkit32, in an attempt to get closer to that which is being studied. Hence the usage of historical terms that the actors themselves would have used when, for example, discussing geographical regions, such as “Ottoman Armenia” and “Ottoman Kurdistan”33 in preference to seemingly “neutral” later ahistorical impositions such as “Eastern Anatolia”34, and descriptions, underscored by the faithful use and rendering of materials in the original language (in this case Western Armenian) that allow subjects to speak with their own voices. By the introduction of such voices, this essay hopes to contribute to the effort for more representative and inclusive Ottoman art histories.

(Re)Introducing the Artist: Garabed Nichanian in Constantinople

8Our knowledge of Nichanian, a once important but now forgotten artist, is at best fragmentary. Yet, his renown in 1890 Constantinople becomes instantly apparent in the opening paragraph of Pashalian’s A Provincial Wedding:

In recent days we had the opportunity to view a painting that presents an Armenian provincial wedding, the work of the well-known painter Garabed Efendi35 Nichanian, [which is on display] in one of the rooms at the Gosdigian (Կոստիկեան) [B]rothers in the Oriental Bazaar in Bolis36. I saw that painting with admiration [wonderment], with an enjoyment equally of the eye and the heart, and I consider it my duty to render others partakers in the boundless satisfaction and a kind of national [ազգային] pride that Nichanian Efendi’s beautiful talent inspires in us.37

9Pashalian’s text was published eight years after Nichanian’s return to Constantinople following a five-year absence in Naples. The poet Sdepan Sourenian marked the artist’s return from his studies in the remarkably protracted and verbose poem, consisting of eight long stanzas counting two hundred and thirty verses, Painting (Նկարչութիւն), “Ode to the Honourable Garabed Efendi Nichanian” (Նուէր ԱռՄեծ. Կարապետ Էֆ. Նշանեան) published in three parts in Masis on 19, 21 and 22 October 1882.38 Meanwhile, writing in 1886, Arpiarian described Nichanian’s return to the imperial capital as “the fine arts having [conscripted] another new soldier (գեղարուեստք նոր զինուոր մ՝եւս ունին)”.39A letter to the editor of Masis published under the title Fine Arts (Գեղարուեստք) on 18 November 1882 heaps great praise on Nichanian on the occasion of the exhibition of a yet unfinished painting of Mevlevi Dervishes in the courtyard of a mosque. The author, who had included a further note by “a friend” who “was articulate and had great knowledge of the fine arts”, requests that these words of praise be communicated to the Armenian youth of the city so that they too would become involved in the fine arts, emulating their contemporary Nichanian.40

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Figure 2 Garabed Nichanian, Self Portrait, 1894
Oil on canvas, 28.5 x 18.2 cm
Image courtesy of National Gallery of Armenia

10A self-portrait, signed and marked Constantinople 1894 [see figure 2], four years after Pashalian’s review, provides a rare and intimate glimpse of how an Ottoman Armenian artist viewed and thought of himself. The art historian Mary Roberts writes of self-portraiture in the late nineteenth century Ottoman space as providing “the most intimate insights into how they perceived themselves and their practice as modern artists in a period and a location where the cultural category was in formation.”41 Nichanian’s direct gaze and confident smile, visible through a luxurious moustache is the self-representation of an optimistic man, understandably pleased with the critical and commercial success he has enjoyed since his return from his studies in Naples. The informality of the painting is reflected in his casual European attire: the artist’s collar is loosely undone, his shirt is unbuttoned, while his fashionable stripy civilian cloth cap with the small visor does not match his jacket. The large moustache and casual cap are signifiers of “East” and “West” respectively, synthesized harmoniously on the picture plane by Nichanian’s own brush. In this surviving rare self-portrait the artist has sought to represent himself as a late nineteenth century Westernised urban modern Ottoman man, with the gentle whiff of the bohemian. The background has been deliberately left undetermined, as to not distract from the artist’s own features, allowing room for the man and artist Nichanian to come alive on canvas.

11Two or so decades after this portrait was executed the artist had been all but forgotten. The veritable treasure trove of everything late Ottoman Armenian, Teotig’s Everyone’s Almanac (Ամէնուն Տարեցոյցը), is inexplicably silent on Nichanian.42 The primary source on Nichanian remains Macler’s brief biographical sketch, published in his 1917 La France et l’Arménie, alongside the artist’s photograph and two undated paintings, one of which was the Wedding.43 Furthermore, beyond a sentence in Macler, nothing is known about Nichanian’s move to Paris in 1906. French Armenian sources, such as the artist and art critic Hrand Alyanak (1880-1938), make no reference to the artist who appears not to have participated in any French Armenian salons or artistic groups.44 In the art historiography of the Diaspora, all biographical notes on the artist in the works of Onnig Avedissian45, Hagop Turabian46, Father Arisdages Bohdjalian47, Garo Kürkman48 and Mayda Saris49 are entirely based on, or reproduce, Macler’s. The same occurs in Soviet (1921-1991) and Armenian Republican (1991 to present) art historiography: these include minor notes by art historians Daniel Dznouni50, Shahen Khachatryan51 and Ararat Aghasyan52. Yeghishe Martikyan makes no mention of Nichanian in either volume III or IV of his History of Armenian Fine Art.53None of the above writers and art historians have tapped Ottoman Armenian sources or display any familiarity with the material on Nichanian published in Masis in 1882 and Arevelk in 1886 and 1890 while discussions of the artist’s work in the Russian Armenian press in 1897, most notably by the celebrated Social Realist novelist, playwright and journalist Alexander Shirvanzadé (1858-1935), published in the literary monthly Mourdj (Մուրճ, Hammer), and by Yervant Lalayan, editor and publisher of the ethnographic journal Azgagrakan Handes (Ազգագրական Հանդէս, Ethnographic Review), in the daily Ardzagank,are noted but barely engaged with.54Of all the above, Kürkman’s contribution is the more valuable as his two-volume compendium of Ottoman Armenian artists, while introducing minimal new information, provides a source for the artist’s paintings by reproducing a total of four paintings in colour.55 Meanwhile, the foremost, albeit small, repository for Nichanian’s paintings remain the storerooms of the National Gallery of Armenia, which has published all seven Nichanian paintings currently listed in its collections on its website.56 The vast majority of Nichanian’s surviving works – like those of most nineteenth and early twentieth century Ottoman Armenian artists – are scattered around private collections around the world, often forgotten and inaccessible to art historians, whilst occasionally surfacing at various auctions. This research paper has unearthed fewer than twenty works in total,57 and that by an artist noted for his prolific production.

12A native of Constantinople, Nichanian received his artistic training at Pierre-Desiré Guillemet’s58(1827-1878) Académie de dessin et de peinture in Constantinople. Guillemet had opened his art school, apparently the first such establishment in the Ottoman Empire, with the encouragement of Sultan Abdülaziz (r: 1861-1876).59 As one of Guillemet’s first students, Nichanian must have taken part in the large painting exhibition organized by Şeker Ahmed Paşa at the Municipal Theatre in Petit-Champs in 1877.60 Arpiarian reports that Nichanian had been a student at the Shahnazarian,61 noting that “even in his childhood his mind was overtaken by the passion of paintings”.62 It is tempting to speculate that Nichanian must have come from a relatively enlightened and comfortable socio-economic background in the light of his having experienced relatively little familial hostility to the pursuit of an artistic career.63 The only hint of such opposition or difficulty comes from a single verse in Part III of Sourenian’s Painting,published on 22 October: “what care for you [effort that you had to exert] that your first steps, were not in the least encouraged” («Ինչ փոյթ քեզի թէ քո քայլերն առաջին, քաջալերուած չեն բնաւին»).64

13Arpiarian reports that after studying “with the famous Guimet [sic]”65, Nichanian had gone to Italy, and following an initial brief stay in Rome in 1877, had moved to Naples where he spent five years, studying at the Royal Academy of Art under Filippo Palizzi (1818-1899) and especially Domenico Morrelli (1823-1901).66 Arpiarian had this to say of Nichanian’s artistic formation in Naples and intellectual leanings:

What can a passionate (խանդ ունեցող) man not accomplish if every day he is alongside (առընթեր է) a teacher such as Domenico Morelli, whom a French artist has called “the second [C]reator of nature”. On the one hand, the young Armenian drew and studied anatomy (անդամազննութիւն) and on the other, sciences, fed his mind (պարարէր իւր միտքը) and heart with the study of the masterpieces of the new and old schools. In Rome and in Napoli the youth cohabits (կենակցի) with the masterpieces of Michelangelo, Rafael, Tiziano. He immerses [himself] into Gerome’s, Meissonier’s and Cabanel’s masterpieces. Every thing inspires him, the memorials (յիշատակարանները), the sky, nature, Italian beauty. But his religion – the only adherence with which it is possible to be something in this world – is the need to stay away from being a copyist, but always to study the person and nature and create. To be a creator and not a copier.67

14Here, Arpiarian has rendered Nichanian’s academic training and artistic world view wide open. All four Armenian art critics – Arpiarian, Pashalian, Shirvanzadé and Lalayan – known to have reviewed Nichanian’s work in the 1880s and 1890s are in agreement that his painting lay on solid academic foundations and professional training. Unsurprisingly, Morelli is singled out as having had the most impact on Nichanian’s artistic development. A key figure in Neapolitan, and Italian, art in the nineteenth century, and central in the reform movement that strived to reform painting from the staid and rigid academicism of the Academies into the modern age, Morelli had also been one of the most influential teachers in Italy. A contemporary biographer notes that “by 1875 the flocking of young men to him for instruction surpassed anything which had been seen in Italy since the days of Canova”,68 later continuing, “it is true that almost all the promising young men coming up between 1865 and 1876 now take pains to set themselves down as ‘pupils of Morelli’”.69 Furthermore, consideration of Nichanian’s especially important paintings, such as the Wedding, strongly betray a close thematic and stylistic affinity to the work of his teacher.

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Figure 3 Announcements of various moves of Garabed Nichanian’s atelier
Masis, 23 Nov. 1882, no. 3345/6 (above), and Arevelk, 17 June, no. 2519 (below)

15Upon his return to Constantinople, Nichanianimmediately established his atelier in or around fashionable Pera in close proximity to his Ottoman and European clients. An advertisement in Masis on 23 November announces [see figure3] his move to 31 Tepebaşı, Pera.70 The Annuaire oriental for 1891 lists him as “Nichanian (C.), portraitiste, R. Pancaldi, 157, P”.71 On 17 June Nichanian advertises yet another move of his atelier from Pangaltı to No. 62 Grand Rue de Pera, above the cigar shop owned by M. Angelides next to Concordia [see figure 3] and informs his clients he could be found at his atelier daily from midday till eleven.72 The Annuaire oriental in 1893 lists Nichanian once again at his Pangaltı address.73 Portraiture, especially high society74, and Eastern genre scenes appear to have been the artist’s bread and butter. While the establishment of the Imperial Fine Art School (Sanayi-i Nefise Mektebi) in Constantinople in 1883 came soon after Nichanian’s return to the imperial capital in 1882, whether Nichanian was ever considered for a teaching position there, or in the school system of the capital is not known. Macler notes however that Nichanian had become art teacher to “S. A. Said Pasha”.75 Nichanian is also known to have copied earlier paintings for patrons.76 He is listed (by surname only, alongside Djivanian77) in a letter published in Masis on 27 January under the heading Painting Exhibition (Նկարահանդէս) as one of the participating artists in the major exhibition in Pera organised by the influential feminist novelist Srpouhi Dussap (1841-1901) in aid of the Philomathic Ladies’ Association (Դպրոցասէր Տիկնանց Միութիւն)78 inaugurated at the end of December 1881, and closed on 18 January79 at the home of Monsieur Grombach.80 The list of participating artists comprises of many of the luminaries of the Constantinople art scene including Ivan (Hovhannes) Aivazovsky (1817-1900), Luigi Acquarone (1800-1896), Yervant Voskan (Osgan, 1855-1914)81, Boghos Shashian (Chachian, d: 1900)82, Bedros Srabian (1833-1898)83, Karnig Ekserdjian (b: 1858)84 and Telemach Ekserdjian (1840-1894)85, and others.86 The date of the exhibition is at odds with Arpiarian’s given date of 1882 noted for Nichanian’s return from Naples, suggesting, perhaps, that Nichanian may have sent work from Naples ahead of his return. On 28 May Masis also notes that Nichanian’s painting The Turkish Musician (Թուրք Երաժիշտն) had been greatly praised by the city’s European press, despite having been one of ten works withdrawn from the prestigious ABC Club’s 1882 Exhibition in Pera as originally intended.87

16It is evident that Nichanian was by 1890 a well established, respected and much sought out artist. That he had began work on the Wedding at the height of his fame is attested by the report On the Occasion of a Painting (Պատկերի մը առթիւ), published in the column Daily Life (Օրուան Կեանք) in Arevelk on 29 November88. During a conversation, the artist confides in Arpiarian, writing under the pseudonym Hraztan89, as having embarked upon a canvas representing an Armenian wedding. Arpiarian notes:

[W]e [Nichanian and I] rendezvous for the day when he will exhibit in public a wedding with Armenian types, Armenian customs[,] towards the realization of which he contemplates, thinks, toils and dreams.90

17The above text provides a key to Nichanian’s initial intentions, thoughts and conceptualisation for the Wedding. As importantly it confirms Nichanian’s proximity to the vanguards of Ottoman Armenian Realism, evoking a sense of intellectual affinity between them. After all, his return to Constantinople had coincided with the Realist turn of Constantinople Armenian literary, social and intellectual thought, the historical moment when Realism established its dominance over the city’s Armenian cultural milieu for the next decade.

Reading Levon Pashalian’s A Provincial Wedding

18Arpiarian’s 1886 article provides an initial, yet revealing, snapshot of Nichanian’s original intentions, his desire to represent the ethnographic wealth of Armenian traditions and customs on canvas.91 Pashalian’s review of the Wedding meanwhile, a fascinating and rare contemporary record of an urban Realist intellectual’s response devoted entirely to a single painting, written three and a half years after Arpiarian’s note, offers a wealth of descriptive observation and aesthetic interpretation of the finished work.92 Having viewed the painting in the artist’s presence makes Pashalian privy to, and a conduit of, at least some of Nichanian’s thoughts and intentions.

19Pashalian’s account provides an especially fortunate source for the art historian, particularly so in that he is presenting an experience markedly different to ours. This is primarily due to his access to and engagement with an original and unique object, an oil on canvas painting, in contrast to the mediated image at our disposal, a mechanically reproduced photographic print, one of a number [see figure 1].93 The black and white photograph deprives its handler from the possibility of the type of intimacy with Nichanian’s individual marks and brushstrokes, the physical markings of his intentions, of directly facing the work in its intended scale or appreciating the full spectrum of the artist’s application and use of colour, all available to Pashalian. For the immediacy of handling a photograph provides a fundamentally different sensation to the experience of viewing and engaging with a painting. Our temporal distance to 1890s Constantinople further complicates our relationship with the image and its interpretation, thus making our access to a contemporary view the more valuable.

20What we have available to us, therefore, is a print in landscape format, with its lower left hand corner torn, the work of a photographer whose name remains unrecorded, one of a handful albumen prints in existence capturing the image of a painting representing the arrival of a wedding party from church.94 Produced for the artist as documentary and archival record of the painting before its sale, it could have also served as visual aid for prospective clients or as template for publication.95It is however its documentary function that establishes our connection between the object at the heart of our interest, the painting, of which the existence it confirms and the image of which it has preserved.Abrogating his traditional responsibilities of framing, staging and composition, the photographer has allowed Nichanian’s painting to impose its own physical boundaries in determining the limits of the photograph. While still its author, the photographer has merely captured and reproduced an image created by someone else.Yet, in the absence of the painting from public view, it is ultimately his photograph that has ensured the survival of the image albeit in mediated form and with the imposition of its own material limitations. Hence, Pashalian’s descriptive text becomes instrumental in helping overcome some of these handicaps that would have necessarily inhibited our visual analysis, and complements our experience of the image by introducing its own layers of insight, gained from an engagement with the original painting.

21The photograph depicts a painting of a crowd, in the process of pouring into a large, rustic and mostly sparse room with high ceilings. Through a central doorway, the unmistakable conical dome of an Armenian church in the distance, from where the celebrants are arriving, can be discerned. On either side of the door, the triangular timber pediments above two blind windows evoke classical architectural forms. A large runner96 and assorted woven grass mats (խսիր) cover the floor space. Earthenware and other everyday implements displayed around the space exude an atmosphere of theatricality. The impression of a stage set is strengthened by Nichanian’s arrangement of the seventeen individuals, attired in Mshetsi native garb.97 Let’s allow Pashalian’s voice to guide us through the painting:

This is a monumental painting, [of] two metres width and one and a half metres height, [presenting a scene from] a provincial wedding where the priest, bride and groom, the best man, the village headman, relatives and friends, in total [a party of] eighteen souls98, are returning from church. On the first plane of the painting appears the conductor of the wedding, then the groom wearing a chasuble and bible in hand. Behind him the godfather [best man], holding a spear with an apple impaled at its point, and together the brother, the bride and the two sisters of the bride, the bride’s face covered with an Armenian veil, while one sister’s face is uncovered, as she is of more advanced years. The peasant priest in a white beard advances, worry beads in hand and behind him [stand] two strong young lads playing the drum, and two other [men] who are dancing, one crying out an exclamation of joy [նաղարա քաշել].99 The bride’s father is also present, as is a neighbour with her baby in her arms. The picture presents a spacious hall, with straw mats covering the floor. Two strings of onions are hanging from the ceiling, [there is] a jug and two cups on a shelf. In the distance the dome of the church is visible surrounded by a blue expanse [of sky], while in the distance appears the city with its castle.100

22Pashalian’s detailed rendering of the work, while pointing to what is readily visible in the photograph, also reveals much that isn’t, such as the presence of the city and a castle or the blue of the sky. Meanwhile, much can also be gleaned from the photograph that has not been noted by Pashalian, such as the partial veiling of the young women referred to in his text as the bride’s sisters [see figure 4], that would suggest recent marriages.101 Other details, meticulously painted into the image by Nichanian, such as the groom’s ceremonial dagger and the sacred book with its prominent, probably silver, cross held by him, or the strikingly different dress of the best man with his curved sword102, [see figure 5], are clearly visible in the photograph and provide much ethnographic detail, the obvious fruit of much research by the artist.

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Figure 4 Garabed Nichanian, Bride’s entourage
in Armenian Wedding in Moush (detail)
AGBU Nubar Library, Paris

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Figure 5 Garabed Nichanian, Groom and best man
in Armenian Wedding in Moush (detail)
AGBU Nubar Library, Paris

23For the Ottoman Armenian Realist intellectual from the vantage point of 1890 Constantinople, Ottoman Armenia and bantkhdoutioun represented the two faces of the same proverbial coin: economic and structural improvement in Ottoman Armenia would stem the flow of migration. For these liberal and social reformist intellectual elites Ottoman Armenia was a distant land that most had never seen, yet imagined vividly due to an abundant body of literature that from the middle of the nineteenth century had shifted its gaze towards it.103 Just as the generation before them, that included the later Patriarch of Constantinople and Catholicos104 Mgrdich Khrimian (1820-1907)105, affectionately known as Hayrig106, and his disciple, the Bishop Karekin Srvantsdiants (1840-1892), both natives of Van, these liberal reformist intellectuals saw education as a panacea for all ills, while their newspapers – Yergrakound, Arevelk, Masis, Hayrenik – repeatedly espoused the economic development of Ottoman Armenia, especially of its agricultural sector, as a means of stemming emigration, and called for the establishment of infrastructure, the rule of law, security of life and property, and closer ties to the rest of the Empire.

24The systematic collection and prolific publication of diverse ethnographic, antiquarian, historical, linguistic and other material including songs, dances, oral histories and customs from across Ottoman Armenia and other Armenian inhabited regions was viewed by Srvantsdiants in 1876 as representing as natural a part of “Armenia” as the land’s flora and fauna.107Articles such as H.M. Doudoukhian’s series Life in Armenia (Հայաստանի Կեանք) published in Arevelk in at least twelve independent parts between August 1887 and April 1888, provides just one example of the diverse aspects of the life of the Ottoman Armenian peasant – tradition, medicine, economy, womanhood, spirituality, etc. – presented to the Constantinople reader.108 In addition, numerous published texts and travel accounts also provided a treasure trove of topographical, archaeological, architectural and historical observation and information.109 Meanwhile, the thousands of petitions that flooded to the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate in Constantinople to be presented to the Sublime Porte in the 1870s and 1880s provided, according to historian Ronald Suny, “an extraordinary record of misgovernment, of arbitrary treatment of a defenceless population and a clear picture of a lack of recourse”.110These documents delivered to the Porte, yet met without redress, kept the reality of the chaos and dire situation in Ottoman Armenia alive for the Armenian elites of the capital.

25With the abundant availability of such information, Nichanian and his fellow elite Constantinople intellectuals, would never have needed to endure the physical hardships of late nineteenth century travel to and within Ottoman Armenia, a land with few roads and lesser infrastructure, to imagine the land and its people intimately. Indeed Nichanian would never have had to set foot outside the imperial capital, to observe those that he represented in his Wedding. Constantinople was awash with thousands of bantoukhds or gharibs (ղարիպներ)111, migrant workers from Ottoman Armenia.112 For Nichanian and his fellow urban intellectual elites, any abstract conceptualisation of Ottoman Armenia had a powerful material counterpart, a very real physical manifestation on the streets of the imperial capital embodied in the recognizable form of the provincial migrant, referred to collectively as the Hayasdantsi113, and in particular Mshetsi114 or Vanetsibantoukhd115, most visible in the figure of the hamal.116

26By 1890, the editorial A Practical Suggestion (Գործնական Առաջարկ Մը) published on 5 May in Arevelk claimed that “it is an accepted truth that in comparison with the other peoples of the State [Empire], Armenians have the largest number of bantoukhds in Constantinople”.117 While the phenomenon of migrating for work was certainly not unique among Ottoman Armenians118, its importance to the community is evident by the prevalence of discussion of the many facets of bantkhdoutioun in Constantinople Armenian newspapers from the late 1860s to the mid-1890s.119 For Khrimian, Srvantsdiants and their generation of mid-nineteenth century intellectuals, bantkhdoutioun had constituted the tragic abandonment of Armenia. For others, such as the editor and activist Mgrdich Portukalian (1848-1921), bantkhdoutioun was a sin, the desertion of homeland and denigration of the Armenian name.120Both sentiments are present in Mardiros Khachmerian’s Life of Armenian Bantoukhds (Կեանք Հայ Պանդխտաց), published in 1876 in Constantinople with the allegorical image of “Armenia”, a desolate woman sitting abandoned among the ruins, reproduced on its cover [see figure 6]. Khachmerian urged all bantoukhds to return to their hearths and homes in Armenia, till its soil and make it blossom.121 Using romantic and religious allegory, Khachmerian divided bantoukhds into three categories122 – the good or fortunate (պանդուխտ բախտաւոր), who diligently sent money to their families and ultimately returned home123; the wretched (պանդուխտ թշուառ), who were exploited and were ultimately unsuccessful124; and those who disappeared without care (պանդուխտ անհոգ իւր հայրենեաց), leaving destitute families behind.125 Unsurprisingly, it is the latter category that is subjected to his greater attention, and for whom his unconcealed ire is reserved.

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Figure 6 Allegorical personification of “Armenia” on title page of Mardiros Khachmerian’s Life of Armenian Bantoukhds [Կեանք Հայ Պանդխտաց], Constantinople, 1876

27The 1880s and 1890s Realists were particularly interested in the bantoukhds’ living and working conditions in the city, in Constantinople. No intellectual treated and represented their experience to the extent and with the sensitivity, empathy and active involvement as the writer Melkon Gurdjian (1859-1915). Writing under the nom-de-plume Hrant, he represented the bantoukhds’ life in all its facets in his Letters of the Bantoukhd (Պանդուխտի Նամակներ)126, a series of twenty or so “letters” written in Constantinople and published in the (by then) weekly Masis between 1888 and 1892. Hrant’s concerns were clearly evoked in the work of Constantinople Armenian artists such as in Srabian’s Manoug Aghpar (1884)127 and Simon Hagopian’s (1857-1921)128 intensely psychological Portrait of a Mshetsi Hamal.129Yet, as ought to be expected, in sharp contrast to the Realists’ active engagement with, and empathy for, the bantoukhds, a wide spectrum of diverse voices – some balanced130 while others extremely hostile towards bantoukhds131 – also existed and made themselves heard.

28Weddings were an important part of nineteenth century ethnographic literary interest in Ottoman Armenia, and the wealth of information and detail published in the Ottoman Armenian press would have provided ample material for Nichanian. The very informative study Wedding Ceremony in the Province of Moush (Հանդէս Հարսանեաց Մուշ Գաւառին Մէջ)132 published in the Mekhitarist journal Pazmaveb133 in Venice in October 1867 provides a fascinating early example of this ethnographic turn (while also revealing fascinating insights into the nature and extent of Armeno-Kurdish cultural interactions). Hence we learn, for example, that: the groom was referred to as the “King”, the Takvor (Թագւոր); his unmarried friends, were known as azab (ազապ)134; their leader, often the best man, was known as the khachaghpar (խաչաղբար, the “cross-brother”)135 and doubled up as the azabbashi (ազապպաշի)136; the Takvor’s ceremonial headwear, called the vartabsag tak (վարդապսակ թագ, rose-wreathed crown) contained “multicoloured golden roses shaped out of non-precious metallic tin” (գոյնզգոյն ոսկի թիթեղներէ շինուած վարդեր)137 which the khachaghpar, alongside bodyguards selected from the azab, had a duty to defend by force if need be from being stolen138; etc. Occasionally the detail provided contradicts Pashalian’s (or Nichanian’s) assumptions: for example, the two women on either side of the bride would never have been the bride’s sisters but the closest female relatives of the groom, also responsible for dressing the bride, known by the Kurdish word brbook (պրպուքներ).139 The same ethnographic spirit is evident in Srvantsdiants’s numerous collected samples of wedding songs and dances published in his volumes Manana (Մանանա, Manna) and Hamov Hodov (ՀամովՀոտով, With the Taste and the Aroma), published in Constantinople in 1876 and 1884 respectively.140

29Aside from an easy recourse to such ethnographic material, Nichanian, in his quest for models for the Wedding would turn to the Hayasdantsibantoukhds, the men and women who represented the face of Ottoman Armenia on the streets of the imperial capital. Pashalian explains:

In order to accurately execute the true to type character of those provincial faces, to reproduce with perfect truthfulness the expressiveness of all the items of clothing, of all the costumes, of all the wedding items and furniture, with their local colour, Nichanian Efendi has ungrudgingly taken upon himself [to suffer] all the troubles [expected of] an artist of conscience, searching every corner of our capital to seek out all the types that could best suit his purpose, defeating these provincials’ naturally inborn untrustworthiness and instinctual unwillingness by all means, by convincing and beseeching the provincial women to come and sit opposite him [to pose] for hours to serve as models. And yet, the result has amply rewarded all his labours. For the artist, the excessive fatigue and the endured anxieties, the trials of inspiration and execution [have all paid off, for] the work, his creation, is there before him, gay and joyful, and already all [the artist’s] toil has been forgotten.141


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