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Kösem Sultan was a woman of the Ottoman harem who served as Haseki Sultan (chief consort) and then Valide Sultan (queen mother) to several rulers. Given the youth and/or weakness of the sultans she served, she was often the de facto leader of the Ottoman Empire during this time.
There is a painting (below), allegedly depicting Kösem breastfeeding an infant Ottoman prince, which is famous enough to be, at the time of writing, the profile picture on her Wikipedia page. I'm curious about the authenticity of this painting, more specifically:
- Is it likely that the painting actually depicts Kösem Sultan?
- If not, is it likely that it depicts another woman of the Ottoman harem?
- Was the breastfeeding drawn from life, or is this most likely a bit of artistic license on the part of the painter?
I can think several factors which might count against the painting's authenticity:
- Christie's identifies the painting as one of a series 'painted for Hans Ludwig Graf von Kuefstein, either during or more probably immediately after his embassy to the Ottoman Court in Istanbul in 1628.' The same page also states, 'It is impossible that the depictions of Turkish ladies were painted from life'.
- The Ottoman establishment was prepared to go to some fairly extreme lengths to preserve of the virtue of the harem women:
- Very few intact males were allowed even to set foot in the harem.
- Penis-shaped vegetables - cucumbers in particular! - were banned from the harem kitchens.
- The harem women were only permitted to listen to professional musicians from behind a screen, so that the male musicians would not be able to look at them.
- The infant is slightly out of proportion.
I can however, think of several factors which might count for the painting's authenticity:
- Kösem was powerful enough to ignore some of the harem's conventions if she wished.
- There are examples, in Western European art of the same period, of aristocratic women exposing their breasts in paintings, e.g. Hortense Mancini.
- Western European culture has historically taken a much more relaxed view of women exposing their breasts if this is done within the context of breastfeeding.