Palace Painter Zonaro’s “Motherly Love”

Erol Makzume August 2014

PALACE PAINTER IN THE REIGN OF OTTOMAN SULTAN ABDULHAMID II WITH THE TITLE “PAINTER TO HIS EXCELLENCY THE SULTAN”, THE RENOWNED ITALIAN ARTIST FAUSTO ZONARO CELEBRATED MOTHERLY LOVE IN HIS WORKS.

Born in the Italian city of Masi in 1854, Fausto Zonaro got interested in painting in his youth and studied at the Lendinara Art School in Padua. The artist, who lived in Venice after working in Naples, Rome and Paris, settled in Istanbul in 1891. Zonaro attracted the attention of the diplomatic mission in Istanbul with his paintings in different techniques, and orders for his canvases increased by the day. When he presented his masterpiece, “The Imperial Regiment of the Ertuğrul on the Galata Bridge”, to Abdulhamid II in 1896, the sultan admired the work and appointed Zonaro palace painter.

MOTHERLY LOVE FIRST…
While perusing some art publications from Europe in 1900, the year when he produced his Istanbul canvases for the palace, Zonaro saw in a magazine that the world renowned photography and art foundation Fratelli Alinari made an announcement for a painting contest on the theme of "Motherly Love". Taking his visiting sister Leonia and his little boy Faustino as models, he made a painting entitled “L’Amore Materno” and sent it to Florence. The work won first prize in the contest.

“L’Amore Materno” became a cover on Italian school texts and art books as well as appearing on postcards. Following the exhibition, the Alinari family’s photography expert and editor, Vittorio Alinari, purchased the painting from the artist for a high price. Hearing of Zonaro’s success, Abdulhamid II asked the artist to make a copy of the same painting for the palace. This reproduction is on exhibit in the Dolmabahçe Palace today.

EVENING CLASSES
Spending time with his children in the evenings and helping them with their lessons, Zonaro painted another painting on the theme of motherly love, again of his little boy Faustino, this time entitled “Evening Lessons”. Hearing about the painting, Abdulhamid II requested the painting from the artist in order to gift it to Frederick Augustus II, Grand Duke of Oldenburg, who was visiting at the time. Since the work eventually wound up in Turkey’s Presidential Palace Collection, it clearly never left the palace.

Hearing that the Alinari painting contest was to be repeated in 1902, Zonaro completed a work similar to “Evening Lessons” but with a few small changes and sent it to Florence. As in 1900, this painting depicting a mother helping her son with his lessons in the light of an oil lamp was again among those that received an international award.

Despite living in Istanbul, Zonaro maintained a close relationship with his mother and visited Masi at every opportunity so that his four Istanbul-born children could spend time with their grandmother.

“Those halcyon days with my mother lasted only briefly,” wrote the artist in his reminiscences of such an Italian journey made in 1904. “On that spot of earth where I first saw the light of day, there was my mother, who, on my rare visits, I always found all alone, a little more bent over with hair a little whiter. How she looked at her dear first son, how she loved him! I made a painting of her every time I came to visit. Remembering how many times she had caressed me in those fresh, tender times, I took a mold of her wrinkled right hand back to Istanbul with me…” These words about his mother from the memoirs of the artist, who decided to return to Italy for good in 1910, express his grief: “My mother’s health was failing fast. When I learned that she wanted to see me one last time, I hastened my departure as best I could. But I still did not get back in time. My poor, dear mother!”

Although Fausto Zonaro, who experienced his mother’s love intensely and depicted it in his works, treated this theme in many of his orientalist paintings, the most successful and emotionally potent among them was surely “L’Amore Materno”, which won the Alinari international painting contest in 1900.