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Thoroughly Modern Mihri

Fascinated by the many faces of Mihri Rasim, Jamie Leptien asks how and why this unique artist has been ignored for so long

  • One of the many faces of Mihri Rasim, 'the emancipated beauty', courtesy of SALT Galata

If you are accustomed to exhibitions that give you a definitive single narrative of a person or period, you may find Mihri: A Migrant Painter of Modern Times somewhat unsettling. Reopening the case file of a neglected figure in Turkish art history, it turns the viewer into a detective, having you pick through and peer at news clippings, letters, photographs and reproductions of lost paintings. You begin by asking “Who is Mihri?” and finish by asking “How can she have been forgotten?”

Certain facts emerge as relatively concrete: Mihri Rasim was born in 1886 to a noble Abkhazian family. Her aunt was married to the Sultan, and her father, an anatomist, was rector of the Imperial Medical School. Mihri began painting at an early age, and on the recommendation of Abdülhamid II, to whom she presented a portrait during a family visit, she took lessons from the last Ottoman court painter, Fausto Zonaro.

In the early 1900s she moved first to Rome and then to Paris, where she mixed with exiled Ottoman reformists and married a law student, Müşfik Selami Bey. (Today she is often referred to as Mihri Müşfik Hanım.)

Back in Istanbul in 1912, she was instrumental in setting up the Academy of Fine Arts for Women, the first of its kind in Ottoman Turkey. As the only woman on the teaching staff, she reportedly broke taboos by taking students to paint in the gardens of Topkapı Palace, as well as persuading a Ministry of Education official to allow male nude statues into the academy by promising their loins would be covered by a hamam towel.

In October 1918 Mihri held an exhibition of paintings at her home in Şişli, prompting one Turkish journalist to describe her as “a national treasure”. She left Turkey for good in 1922, visiting only briefly in 1924 to paint Atatürk at his Çankaya residence in Ankara. On her return to Rome, she is said to have crossed paths with Mussolini. Separating from her husband, she sailed to New York in 1927, where she worked as a portrait painter and teacher and solved residency troubles by marrying an Italian-born musician and composer, Salvatore Virzi. Notable among works from her American years were portraits of Edison and Roosevelt. She died in New York in 1954. Most of this is scrupulously evidenced in the exhibition. There is no birth certificate, but there is correspondence, the addresses of five Manhattan apartments, and US Immigration Office logs (“height: 5ft 4in, complexion: pale, hair: brown, eyes: brown, polygamist: no”).

Presented with self-portraits, photographs and first-hand journalistic accounts, we end up not with one Mihri, but with many. A 1920 self-portrait shows an enigmatic strawberry blonde in a light blue veil; at a wake in Istanbul she is “a petite woman tightly draped in a black chador”; to excited journalists in Rome and New York she is an Oriental beauty, all “dark hair and flashing black eyes”; in later photos, with black leather gloves and an eyeglass, she is strict and matronly. Her name, too, becomes a fluid site of representation: who could close the door to “Princess Alciba de Rassim Pacha”?

Let us hope more Mihris are yet to come. After a century in the footnotes of Turkish public life, this March she was back on the newsstands, with selfportraits on the covers of two magazines. Those pushing to give her a permanent place in Turkish art history see this exhibition as just the first step. A feature-length documentary, Kim Mihri? (Who Is Mihri?), is in production, and the art historian Özlem Gülin Dağoğlu is preparing a monograph for publication. With the whereabouts of many of her paintings unknown – including portraits of Atatürk and Roosevelt – the most exciting outcome of renewed public interest would be the rediscovery of some of those. A full retrospective would then surely not be too far away.

To read the full article, purchase Issue 59

Buy the issue
Issue 59, June 2019 Behind Closed Doors
£12.00 / $15.50 / €14.24
Other Highlights from Cornucopia 59
  • Charmer Chameleon

    Described by his friend the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray as ‘a languid Lotus-eater’, the Victorian Orientalist JF Lewis travelled to Turkey and Egypt and recreated what he saw of Ottoman life in loving, exotic detail – often painting himself and his wife into his pictures clad in elaborate local dress. Briony Llewellyn looks back over a life of many colours

  • The Oldest Temple on Earth?

    Six millennia before Stonehenge, the dawn of the agrarian revolution came to the now arid Anatolian steppe – and with it came Göbekli Tepe, perhaps the first place of worship built by man. With its T-shaped columns and menacing animal carvings, it is an unacknowledged wonder of the ancient world. But who built it? And what went on here? By Barnaby Rogerson

  • Secret Chambers of the Black Eunuchs

    As the Topkapi prepares to open up parts of the palace long kept hidden, we recall the time Cornucopia was granted rare access to what remains the most secret section of all – the quarters of the Black Agas. These powerful African eunuchs guarded the Harem and controlled the finances of the hugely wealthy Queen Mother. Text by Berrin Torolsan. Photographs by Fritz von der Schulenburg

  • Eye of the Beholder

    Yildiz Moran abandoned photography for lexicography at the age of 30. But her decade behind the lens left an astonishing body of work, celebrated this year at Istanbul Modern. By Jamie Leptien

  • Adventures in the Wild, Wild East

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  • A room of his own

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  • The road to ruins

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  • Shepherd’s Delight

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Buy the issue
Issue 59, June 2019 Behind Closed Doors
£12.00 / $15.50 / 512.95 TL
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