A Forgotten Woman of the Republic: The Many Ways of Melek Celâl

The life of Melek Celâl, a pioneering female artist of the late Ottoman Empire and early Turkish Republic, serves as a poignant reflection of the profound societal changes that took place during this transformative period. Though largely forgotten today, she played an active role in shaping the art world at a time when women were transitioning from being mere subjects in paintings to creating their own artworks. Commemorating Melek in the centennial year of the Republic is thus akin to revisiting this pivotal phase in Turkish history, and its founding ideals.

Born in the late nineteenth century in the Ottoman Empire, and continuing their lives in the newly established Turkish Republic, the life and art of the first generation of modern artists provide insight into the ways in which modernisation was experienced in a nation undergoing radical change. Raised in Istanbul amidst the cultural heritage of a prosperous Ottoman family, Melek Celâl’s life unfolded against the dizzying urban metamorphosis of Istanbul and the broader cultural evolution of Turkey.

Born Melek Ziya, with her father’s name; later becoming Melek Celâl with her husband’s; she assumed the name Melek Celâl Sofu with the Family Name Law in 1934, and Melek Lampé after her second marriage in 1956. Throughout her lifetime, she signed her works with the simple ‘Melek.’ As a painter, sculptor, writer, and critic, she lived as a true intellectual of the Republican era, internalising Western and Anatolian influences, embodying both the old and the new.

‘My [darling] daughter Melek, the apple of my eye’

Fatma Melek was born on 2 April 1896, the only child of Lieutenant Colonel Abdurrahman Ziya Bey and Naciye Hanım. Her mother, Naciye Hanım, was a descendant of Ali Paşa of Tepelena, the Albanian ruler who served as the Ottoman governor of the Ioannina province in Western Rumelia between 1788-1822. Ali Paşa and his family held sway over the southern and western territories of present-day Albania and Greece for approximately thirty-five years. During the Greek struggle for independence, Ioannina gained a considerable degree of autonomy under Ali Paşa’s administration. Prominent Turkish intellectuals including Ebüzziya Tevfik, Abdülhak Şinasi Hisar, and Nâmık Kemal can also be counted among Ali Paşa’s descendants. 

Positioned uniquely by virtue of her family’s affluence and educational status, Melek was afforded a quality education at home. Growing up with her grandmother Eşref Hanım and her cousin Nasib Hanım, both esteemed and influential women of their time, she had the opportunity to establish close relationships with intellectuals within their social circle. Her mother, Naciye Hanım, passed away in 1916. Meanwhile her father, Lieutenant Colonel Abdurrahman Ziya Bey, stationed in the Balkans during the First World War, consistently sent provisions from Romania to his family in Istanbul. He wrote letters to his daughter, affectionately addressed to ‘My [darling] daughter Melek, the apple of my eye.’ 

On 23 July 1917, the Cypriot lawyer Sofuzade Celâl Bey wrote a letter to Ziya Bey, seeking permission to marry Melek. Ziya Bey responded positively to this request, noting that it was met with ‘satisfaction and pride’ by himself and the entire family. Consequently, Melek and Celâl Bey were married on 3 August 1917.

In a letter dated 11 April 1918, Ziya Bey mentioned that he would be returning to Istanbul in twelve days. He passed away shortly thereafter, on 4 May 1918. Melek and Celâl Bey’s only child, Mustafa Ziya, was born on 15 October 1918. 


‘Mademoiselle Melek Zia’

Popularised through international clubs in the 1910s, postcards served as a gateway to Europe, particularly its art, for those unable to travel abroad at the time. Letters and postcards from Melek’s formative years paint the picture of a young woman proficient in foreign languages, and interested in literature and the arts. The postcards she received from various European cities, especially between 1911-1914, reveal that Melek, aged 15-18, actively participated in postcard exchanges, an important social network of her time.

Numerous postcards addressed to ‘Mademoiselle Melek Zia’ arrived from European capitals, primarily Brussels, London, Barcelona, and Paris. The majority of these postcards bore the stamp of the Belgian exchange club ‘Libre-Échange’ [L.-É.], and predominantly featured paintings exhibited at the Paris Salon Exhibitions during the years in question. It is possible that Melek specifically requested reproductions of these works from her correspondents, enabling her to stay abreast of the art exhibited in Paris between 1908-1913.

Around the same time, Melek also began collecting the signatures of individuals she deemed influential in European cultural and artistic circles, as evidenced by a French letter sent to the renowned architect Jean-Louis Pascal in 1912. Combining her love for art with a passion for collecting, she took part in the ‘autographomania’ movement, exchanging missives with renowned painters, writers, and composers of the time. It is likely that she came across the names of some of the artists with whom she corresponded through postcards featuring their works shown in the Salon exhibitions.

‘My dear Melek, why don’t you take up painting?’

The poet Nigâr Hanım was a prominent member of the new intellectual milieu that came into existence as part of the cultural transitions brought about in the Tanzimat era, and an important role model for the women of her time. Beyond her role as a writer, Nigâr Hanım’s social life also defied the societal expectations placed on women of the period. Through the ‘Tuesday Receptions’ she organised in the salon of her mansion in Nişantaşı, she brought together the distinguished artists and intellectuals of the period. These mixed-gender environments can be seen as an extension of salon culture, which emerged as a result of Western influence in the late Ottoman period.

Melek spent her childhood and youth within these circles. She was raised among some of the most respected female intellectuals of her time, including her grandmother Eşref Hanım and Eşref Hanım’s cousin Nasib Hanım. Nigâr Hanım’s diaries often mention Eşref and Nasib, who were her frequent companions. In her own recollections, Melek discussed gatherings of women in the arts, including Nigâr Hanım, the composer Leylâ Saz, and Fehime Nüzhet Hanım, known for her involvement in theatre, during which they sang songs and recited poetry to the accompaniment of musical instruments. Accounts of these unique assemblies, during which women participated in stimulating exchanges, shed light on their relationships and the sources of their intellectual development.

In her diaries, Melek articulates Nigâr Hanım’s role in the beginning of her artistic career. She recalls the poet visiting her home after her mother’s death and asking her, ‘My dear Melek, why don’t you take up painting?’ Thus, Melek expresses, ‘I had found the pursuit that would give me the greatest pleasure in life and console me at all times.’ 

Melek’s Education in Fine Arts

Many sources indicate that Melek received her first painting lessons from her uncle Kâzım Bey, a soldier painter. It is also mentioned that she attended the School of Fine Arts for Women, where she was a student of Nazmi Ziya Güran and that later, she was educated at the Académie Julian in Paris. Since her name is not found in the official records of either the School of Fine Arts for Women or the Académie Julian, it is possible that she might have audited classes without officially enrolling.

A biographical article on Melek Celâl written for the Kadın Gazetesi [Women’s Newspaper] in 1948, by Şükûfe Nihal, mentions that she received a ‘private, serious and systematic education,’ that she was as fluent in French and German as she was in Turkish, and that she had practised painting in Turkey, Germany, and France. The brochure from her last exhibition in Munich in 1964 notes that she was trained at the ‘Istanbul Academy of Art,’ which likely refers to the School of Fine Arts for Women, having later merged with the men’s school and taken the name the Academy of Fine Arts. Melek is also believed to have been a guest student in Nazmi Ziya’s studio, and an article she wrote after his death in 1937 points to the evolution of their teacher-student relationship into a friendship over time.

The Munich exhibition brochure further mentions that she worked ‘especially in Paris, with Edmond Ceria, Louis Süe, and André Planson; at the Académie Julian; and on sculpture with Pierre Poisson.’ However, neither her name, nor those of the painter Edmond Ceria and the well-known sculpture and medallion artist Pierre-Marie Poisson, can be found in the records of the Académie Julian. It is likely that Melek attended the private studios run by these artists.

Melek’s address book lists addresses for Ceria (10 Rue Cassini), Poisson (18 Rue Moulin de beurre), and Louis Süe (122 Rue de Grenelle), as well as the studio shared by Léopold Lévy and painter André Derain (112 Rue d’Assas). This suggests that she worked in various studios as a student or visitor during her time in Paris. The painter André Planson, mentioned among her instructors, taught at the Académie Julian from the 1950s onwards. Frequently visiting Paris during this time, Melek might have taken private lessons from Planson as well. 

‘Melek Melek, You Old Melek’

Articles written about Melek from the 1930s onwards position her as being primarily a portrait and still-life painter. Columns published about her solo exhibition held in 1935 at the Mısır Apartment in Istanbul, along with works by her close friend, the graphic artist İhap Hulûsi, placed particular emphasis on her portraiture. Various articles considered her portraits to be masterpieces, hailing her portrait sketches as heralding the arrival of a great portraitist; and noted that her still lifes reflected a refined taste and mature technique. While her nudes were criticised, her landscapes were praised for their exceptional compositions and strength of colour and design. Melek, whose sketchbooks were predominantly filled with figures and portraits, inscribed a self-portrait of herself painting, dated 30 December 1935, with the note ‘Melek Melek, You Old Melek.’

Although she produced very few sculptures, some publications mention her contributions to this field as well. An article published in the Arkitekt magazine about the 1935 exhibition at the Mısır Apartment features photographs of two of her busts, alongside four of her paintings. Aside from her bronze bust of the Polish painter Roman Bilinski, the fate of her sculptures made of plaster or clay remains unknown. However, Melek’s foray into sculpture indicates her desire to experiment with three-dimensional forms in addition to her prowess as a portraitist.

‘The Painter, Mrs. Melek Celâl’

Following the declaration of the Second Constitutional Period in 1908, Muslim-Turkish women began to participate in the increasingly vibrant art scene. The Galatasaray Exhibitions organised by the Society of Ottoman Painters from 1916 onwards played a significant role not only in the acceptance of painting as a profession but also in the visibility of female artists. In 1917, Melek participated in her first Galatasaray Exhibition under the name ‘Melek Ziya.’ From the 1920s onwards, she continued to show works in these exhibitions, under the name ‘Melek Celâl.’

Throughout her life, Melek is known to have participated in twenty-seven group exhibitions and opened two solo exhibitions, one in Turkey and the other in Germany. In these exhibitions, she displayed approximately fifty portraits, thirty-five still lifes, twenty nudes, and ten landscapes. Some of these works, which included charcoal and pastel studies, are in the form of sketches or studies. Frequently mentioned in the press after opening her first solo exhibition at the Mısır Apartment in 1935, Melek was usually referred to as ‘The Painter, Mrs. Melek Celâl.’

The first nudes, painted by İbrahim Çallı and Namık İsmail, were featured in the 1922 Galatasaray Exhibition. The nude female figures included by Melek in the 1924 Galatasaray Exhibition indicate that she was the first female painter to exhibit nude works.

Melek’s last exhibition took place in 1964 at the Galerie Schumacher in Munich.

‘My Very Dear Madame Melek’

The poet, writer, politician, and diplomat Yahya Kemal Beyatlı returned to Istanbul in 1913 after leaving due to Sultan Abdülhamid II’s authoritarian regime. He met Melek and her husband Celâl Bey during the occupation of the city. Melek recounts their first meeting in a series titled ‘Close Friends Describe Yahya Kemal,’ published in the Yeni Sabah newspaper in 1958:

"I met Yahya Kemal Bey during the occupation of Istanbul. Kemal Bey was a friend of my late husband Celâl Bey. We were newlyweds at the time. One day, we were standing together under a tree at Moda Burnu. Istanbul stretched out before us in all its grandeur, yet carrying the melancholic, wounded feeling of those days. Yahya Kemal approached us. That was the first time I saw him."

Yahya Kemal gradually grew closer to the couple, especially after becoming neighbours in Moda in 1934-1935. The poet frequently visited their mansion in Moda, spending time with them in the garden and along the shore. Melek, who was interested in classical Turkish arts and architecture, mentions walking around Istanbul and especially Üsküdar with him, stating, ‘We frequently went to Üsküdar, which I got to know and love through Yahya Kemal Bey. He knew every corner and every street.’

Correspondence dated after Celâl Sofu’s death and Melek’s relocation to Germany indicates that they remained in touch until Yahya Kemal’s death in 1958. The poet’s letters reflect his deep respect for her. Referred to as his ‘Very dear Madame Melek,’ whose hands he ‘kissed with the utmost reverence,’ Melek remained one of his close friends for forty years. 

Villa Wohl and its Visitors

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the area around Kadıköy, particularly Moda, gained popularity as a summer retreat for the residents of Istanbul. A residential area consisting of large mansions with expansive gardens emerged around the coastal town. Following the First World War and especially after the declaration of the Republic, these mansions gradually changed hands, and over time, were mostly demolished.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, Melek hosted gatherings reminiscent of salon culture at the Villa Wohl in Moda, where she lived with her husband Celâl Bey. The villa became a regular meeting place for intellectuals of the time, including Yahya Kemal Beyatlı, Albert-Louis Gabriel, İhap Hulusi Görey, Falih Rıfkı Atay, Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu, Fazıl Ahmet Aykaç, Nazmi Ziya Güran, and Louis Süe. These assemblies reflected the lifestyle of an artistic milieu that embraced the cultural shifts brought about by the Republic. From the 1950s onwards this community gradually dispersed, and Villa Wohl, once an iconic Moda mansion even featured on postcards, was demolished to make way for an apartment building.

Today, there are very few remnants of life in Moda during this period. In this regard, Melek’s life can be seen to overlap not only with the cultural transformation of Turkey, but also with the urban metamorphosis of Moda and Istanbul. 

Melek’s Travels

Melek’s youth unfolded against the backdrop of the tumultuous transition from Sultan Abdülhamid II’s authoritarian regime to the Second Constitutional Period, marked by the challenges of the First World War and the Turkish National Struggle. Thus, the first documented instance of her travelling abroad was in December 1922. Seeking medical treatment, she first journeyed to Vienna and later Munich, remaining there until 15 September 1923. Melek extensively travelled to Italy and Switzerland in the 1920s and embarked on an extended European journey in 1931, visiting Athens, Naples, Rome, Florence, Lausanne, and Paris.

Melek’s first visit to Switzerland took place in 1927, and she returned many times over the years. Spending significant time in Lausanne and Geneva, she continued to paint while there. Delivering conferences, she endeavoured to introduce foreign audiences to Turkish art. In her memoirs and letters, Melek also expressed great pleasure in exploring the museums of Paris, one of her favourite European cities to which she returned often.

Melek’s extensive travels within Turkey and Europe throughout her life, evidenced by photographs, postcards, diaries, and notes in her archive, underscore her profound engagement with art and architecture.

‘Notes from my journey’

In 1931, Melek embarked on an extensive trip across Europe. In her French diary, ‘Notes from my journey,’ she described her travels through Athens, Naples, Rome, Florence, Lausanne, and Paris. Melek expressed her admiration for the Acropolis in Athens and the nobility of ancient Greek art, and shared her experiences in Naples, including her visit to the island of Capri and the picturesque views of Pompeii. Her accounts of Rome and Florence reveal the impact of the art she witnessed. She wrote about her experience in the Vatican, where, for the first time in her life, she felt the need to pray without knowing to whom or why, and described how she was unable to hold back her tears in Fra Angelico’s chapel. Visiting the Sistine Chapel, she expressed feeling ‘completely overwhelmed’ by the grandeur of Michelangelo’s paintings on the vaulted ceiling. 

In her diary, Melek admitted that she was unable to establish a connection with Raphael’s works, though it is evident that she was particularly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci and the city of Florence. She noted calling out to Leonardo, referring to him as a ‘sublime being,’ and tracing his genius across Florence, emphasising that his brilliance enveloped the city, becoming a source for its undeniable charm and allure.

In closing her travel diary, Melek mentioned that she had been in Lausanne for two weeks and concluded with the words, ‘Thank goodness, tomorrow I am heading to Paris!’

‘Innovation never means being ignorant of the past.’

Like many artists of the early Republican period, Melek also assumed the roles of critic and writer, expressing her views on the preservation of traditional arts, architecture, and urban development, reflecting a certain modern sensibility. After her first article on the urban planning of Istanbul was published in the Tan newspaper in 1936, she wrote consistently for several decades. She advocated preserving the Üsküdar district as a ‘sample of old Istanbul,’ documented the works of the ‘white-bearded venerable masters’ working in the Turkish decorative arts department of the Academy of Fine Arts, emphasised the need to safeguard traditional Turkish carpet weaving, celebrated the preservation of Turkish needlework through newly opened schools for girls, sighed over the deteriorating nature of the Bosphorus, and called for the conservation of the Köprülü Mansion in Kanlıca.

Melek’s criticisms of urban planning and restoration activities in the city are often conveyed through her focus on the Üsküdar district. The loss of the historic texture of the neighbourhood, which she mentioned coming to know and love through Yahya Kemal, was a great source of sorrow for her. Her words in her 1941 Tan newspaper article titled ‘Üsküdar İmar Edilirken’ [While Üsküdar Is Being Planned], ‘We must preserve all the particularities of monuments while repairing them. Otherwise, in trying to restore it, we may ruin a beautiful and valuable neighbourhood,’ reflect Melek’s emphasis on the importance of preserving the architecture of Istanbul and her call for the careful execution of restoration efforts.

In this context, Melek encapsulated the essence of a fading cultural milieu that was not only influenced by Westernisation but also endeavoured to safeguard the historical heritage of its lands. By asserting, ‘[...] innovation never means being ignorant of the past,’ she adeptly bridged and internalised both the old and the new. 

Melek’s Publications

Melek’s books and lectures on traditional Turkish arts and calligraphy rivalled her work as a painter and sculptor. In 1938, she published her debut book, Reisülhattatin Kâmil Akdik, delving into the life and art of Kâmil Akdik, a master calligrapher who served as a cultural bridge connecting the Ottoman Empire and the Republic. Showcasing a selection of Kâmil Akdik’s most significant works, this volume also holds the distinction of being the first publication dedicated to a living calligrapher. Its introduction features a portrait of the calligrapher, signed by Melek herself.

Melek’s second book, Türk İşlemeleri [Turkish Embroideries], was published in 1939 with the aim of documenting her work, experiences, and observations in the field for future generations. As one of the first source works on the subject, the book emphasises colour, motifs, and composition in embroideries, featuring 64 photographs and 13 designs, some of which were created by Melek herself.

In her third book, published in 1948, Melek introduced the great master of Ottoman calligraphy, Şeyh Hamdullah, through an investigative text and a selection of his works. 

In 1959, Melek published the book Le Vieux Sérail des Sultans [The Old Palace of the Sultans] in French, aiming to introduce the Topkapı Palace to Western readers. The book, which begins with an introduction by Albert Gabriel, includes original drawings of some spaces in the Topkapı Palace made by Melek herself.

Although Melek documented her intention to publish books about the calligrapher and tughra artist İsmail Hakkı Altunbezer, the calligrapher Necmeddin Okyay, and the manuscript illuminator Bahaaddin Tokatlıoğlu, no records exist of these works, except for the preparatory notes she took on İsmail Hakkı Altunbezer.

Melek’s Later Years

After Celâl Bey’s death in 1946, Melek frequently travels to Munich, often due to health issues. During these visits she often sees her doctor, Arno Eduard Lampé, whom she had first met thirty years prior. The couple eventually gets married on 30 November 1956. In the letters she writes to her friend, the artist Şükriye Dikmen, between 1952-1965, Melek mentions that she continues to paint in various studios during her time in Munich. She notes exhibitions featuring her works, recalls conferences at which she is invited to speak, evaluates the exhibitions she visits, and expresses her thoughts on artists and new trends. She strives to stay connected to the cultural and artistic world as much as her health allows. She finds the weather in Munich cold and gloomy, longing for warm weather, Istanbul, Moda, and its surroundings. During each visit to Istanbul, she finds her homeland different from what she remembers, feeling that the values that need to be preserved are not being upheld, and that the number of people she can relate to is decreasing. In 1964, she opens her first solo exhibition in Munich. When an illness in 1965 prevents her from painting, this becomes the last exhibition of her lifetime. In 1974, she loses her husband, Professor Lampé. Melek herself passes away in 1976 after a prolonged illness.

Melek, who began her life amid the cultural heritage of an influential family during the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic, excelled as a painter, sculptor, writer, and critic. It might even be said that her extensive exploration of traditional Turkish arts and calligraphy through articles, books, and conferences sometimes overshadowed her identity as an artist. Despite the health issues she faced throughout her life, she never abandoned her artistic passions, and spent her eight decades in a way that would inspire the first generation of the Republic.