Sometimes, we tend to forget it, but the Lebanese culture is also important by its painting. In order to give it back its graciousness, we invite you on a journey through the history of painting in Lebanon, in four parts, from its awakening in the seventeenth century till the masterpieces of the contemporary Lebanese Artists.
The awakening of the Art in Lebanon can be dated at the beginning of the seventeenth century, under the reign of Emir (prince) Fakr al-Din 1st (1572-1635).
This prince, who was determined to introduce Lebanon on the path of modern civilization by ruling according to the methods inspirited by the West had a great interest in all Art-related issues. When in 1613, he had to leave for exile in Toscana; he had all the opportunities to contemplate the wonderful masterpieces that were offered to his sight. When he returned to Lebanon, he sent after architects and artists from Italy in order to build for him a Venetian Style Palace in Beirut.
According to the descriptions that were left to us, one could see in front of the entrance a succession of courtyards encircled with white marble fountains that would have definitely competed with the famous Palaces of Europe.
One could also admire there the wonderful gardens decorated with statues of marble and canals cut in stone flowing in the shadow of lemon trees. This impulse given to Art indicates the beginning of the artistic revival on the Lebanese coast.
In the mountains, it is rather schools and printing that allowed such an awakening. Under the Ottoman occupation, convents had become the center of economic, socio-political and intellectual life.
From their side, the Lebanese Students in Rome assigned to themselves a religious and educational task at the same time. Thus, several schools were founded mainly in Ihden, Achqut, Baskinta and Beit Chabeb.
All along with the school, the printing was introduced to Lebanon as of the XVII century. In addition, the Gothic occidental style, characterized by its fine drawing and freshness of colors gives birth to a school of painting which works filled many convents and churches of the mountain.
At the beginning of the XIX century, Lebanese contacts with the Occident were becoming more important: the big pieces of oil paintings arrived from Italy and
Austria by so creating centers of artistic revival. Also at that period, many statues were imported from Europe and quite rapidly were subject to copying and imitation.
One of the first artists that deserves to be particularly mentioned is Musa Dib (1730-1826) from Dlipta, but it is his nephew and his follower Kan'an Dib (1801-1882), emulator of the Italian painter Constantin Giusti (deceased in 1873), who distinguishes himself the most in this field since he was chosen to be the accredited painter of the Emirs (Princes) Chihâb. He is the one who was assigned to carry out the paintings of the residences of Ayn Warqa (1841) and of Ghazîr (1851).
The Emir Bachîr (1767 – 1851) introduces the arabesque in his palace of Beit el-Dîn. He brought from Damascus the most skilful workers in polishing marble and the best mosaic workers in order to give the palace that he was building a decorative cachet that gives it all its charm. On the walls covered with marble, he made them carve inscriptions where the writer of the palace, Butrus Karâmâ (1774-1851) had included ancient adages and Arabic sentences.
At this same period of time, the college Mar'Abda Harharayya in Ghazîr opened in 1813. It is in this college that Kan'ân Dîb got in contacts with the friars who have visited Italy and were subject to the influence of the works of Raphael (1483 – 1520), Michel Angelo (1475 – 1564) and other great masters of the Renaissance. At the beginning, Kan'ân transcribed on his paintings what his deep faith inspired to him before consecrating himself exclusively to the career of portraitist.
Dâwûd al-Qurm (1852 – 1930) is a great pioneer of the renaissance in Lebanon. His father, Sim'ân Hukayyim, from Ghusta, was one of the rare persons to master foreign languages such as Latin and Italian. The Emir Bachîr needed a tutor for his children, therefore, he sent after Sim'ân for this purpose. Since Sim'ân was stubborn, the Emir gave him the nickname "al-Qurm" which remained attached to him and became the patronymic of his descendents. Sim'ân remained for 18 year the tutor of the Emir’s sons and was also in charge of the private accounting of his wives. He married Maryam, daughter of Hâni, from Ghazir who was the confident of Mrs. Hasan Jihân, the Emir’s second wife. He had from her three sons, the most famous being Dâwûd.
Beirut became hence a considerable large cultural, tourist and commercial center. We witnessed the birth of the theater, the large printing house, a public library, a newspaper and a university. A number of occidental artists flew to Lebanon and got down to painting with love every cranny of it. They were seduced by the purity of its atmosphere, its natural beauties, the relics of the past, the oriental style of its constructions and the aboriginal costumes. The first is the British Barlett who came in 1834 to set his easel on the shore of Beirut, in the suburbs, to draw the sea, the minarets, the towers, the white houses, the sycamores, the prickly pears, men in Arab costumes and women wearing the traditional hat, the tantûr.
Then, was Pierre Vignal (1855 – 1924), specialized in the aquarelle style. He left a landscape of Kafarchima, a "native" coffee Scene in Dbayya, a picture of Mina' al-Husn where we can see a part of the shore of Beirut as well as the mountain. Then, it is the turn of Louis-François Cassas (1756 – 1827) who was sent by Louis XV (1710 – 1774) in a mission to the East and who painted hundreds of drawings.
These artists launch the starting point of “marine”, a school of painting born in Beirut in the middle of the XIX century and which was devoted first and foremost to the painting of ships and sea. The European influence was not the only to act on this school, since the Turkish school, whose style prevailed in all the province of the Ottoman Empire also played a certain role in the art of this school, in Beirut and Tripoli. Among these direct influences, worth mentioning is its care to fix on the paintings the historical events, mainly the battles while searching to introduce the largest number of people in order to show the historical significance of these events.
One of the pioneers of this marine school is Ibrahim Sarabiyya from Beirut (born in 1865), author of portraits and landscapes; he mainly excelled in painting the sea and the boats. One of his masterpieces represents the reception of the German Emperor Guillaume II (1859-1941) at the port of Beirut, which reminds of the paintings of the Venetian Giovanni Canaletto (1697-1768).
At this same period, a young man from Beirut named Jammal used to spend most of his time at contemplating the blue immensity of the sea. He decided to go to Istanbul and to join the military school where he graduated as a marine officer. On the Bosphorus, he painted many paintings full of vigor. He settled in Istanbul and worked there as a drawing professor in several governmental schools.
Another pioneer of this artistic revival is a young man from the Dimachqiya family who is the painter of a painting that shows the Victoria Ship sinking in the waters of Tripoli during the passage of the English fleet in the region. After him came Hassan al – Tannir, Salim Haddad, Muhammad Said Miri and Nagib Bikhazi. Miri immigrated to America, Haddad to Egypt and Bikhazi to Russia.
The large residence of the writer Nasif al-Yazigi (1800-1871) contained a large number of precious manuscripts and was considered as a real literary circle that gathered intellectuals, poets, and artists around a man whose authority was recognized. His son Ibrahim (1847-1906) grew up in that circle. He started a literary and poetic career but soon his preferences geared toward the sciences of the language, to literary composition and to art.
In all these fields he showed an unusual talent. He was even one of the best calligraphers of his time, playing a capital role in the making of the printing characters. He even improved and simplified its forms, brought them closer to Latin characters and made them more adapted to modern life. Moreover, he used to make drawings in colors and with charcoal for his friends and close people.
The pieces that subsist from his abundant production show the precision of his touch of his expressive vigor, of his refined taste to blend colors and light and to turn the most subtle nuances into feelings and emotions. Among his works, we will mention his auto portrait painted from a mirror and the portrait of his sister, the poetess Warda al Yazigi (1838-1924).
Many of his works at that period are today lost. The little that remained of them shows that this art is still the work of amateurs. Most of these artists didn’t have the basis nor the sufficient formation. The success received by their works was due to their relentless labor, their sense of observation and their love of art. Only Raif Chadudi (1872-1914) applied the normative principles of art. During his short career, this realistic artist dedicated himself to portrait mainly. His works signal themselves by the vigor of the drawing, the richness of color and the sharpness of the physiognomic expressions.
MOOVTOO Exclusive: This article was originally written by Abdallah Naaman in French and has been translated into English