art in Lebanon, Edouard Lahoud, Near East Books Company, New York
The awakening of art in Lebanon can be traced back to the beginning
of the 17th century under the government of Fakhr Ed-Din. This prince
was determined to bring Lebanon into the mainstream of modern civilization
by governing according to western-inspired methods. He also showed
a sharp interest and sensitivity for everything concerning art.
In 1613, he had to leave for Tuscany. There he found plenty of leisure
time and ample opportunity to contemplate the magnificent masterpieces
which everywhere met his eye. Back in Lebanon, he hired Tuscan architects
and artists who erected for him in Beirut(1) a
palace in Venitian style. According to the descriptions still available
today about this palace, once could see before the entrance a series
of courtyards surrounded by fountains of white marble, in every
way as beautiful as those found in the most famous palaces of Europe.
There were to be admired lush gardens decorated with marble statues
and winding canals, artistically dug out of stone and flowing in
the shade of lemon trees.
The impetus which Fakhr Ed-Din gave to art marks the beginning of
an artistic rebirth on the coast on Lebanon.
In the mountains, however, this awakening was made possible with
the establishment of schools and printing. Under the ottoman occupation,
convents had become the centers of economics, socio-political and
intellectual life. On their side, the Lebanese students in Rome
had assumed for themselves, in Lebanon, a responsibility both religious
and educational. A number of schools were started, especially in
Ehden, Ashqut, Beskinta and Beit Shabab.
Along with schools, printing made its appearance in Lebanon(2).
Likewise, western gothic style which was characterized by fine drawing
and vivid colors gave birth to a school of painting, the works of
which filled convents and churches in the mountains. This was happening
in the 18th century, at a time when the first institutions of higher
learning were opening up.
At the beginning of the 19th century, contacts between Lebanon and
the west were multiplying; important compositions in oil were rushed
from Rome and Austria. This created centers of artistic rebirth.
A large number of statues were also imported from the West at that
time and people quickly set out to copy and imitate them.
One of the first artists worthy of mention was Canaan Dib from Dlepta.
He was a disciple of the Italian painter Giusti, better known as
the official painter of the Shehab emirs.
With the Shehabs, in fact, we witness the renaissance of another
branch of art. Whereas Fakhr Ed-Din had borrowed the Western style
of statues to decorate Beirut palace, Emir Beshir, on the contrary,
introduced the arabesque in his Beit Ed-Din palace. The emir had
commissioned the most skillful workers in polishing marble and the
best mosaic artists so that they could give a unique decorative
charm to the palace that was being built for him. Inscriptions were
engraved on the marble-covered walls and the palace writer, Butros
Karame, had incorporated into them ancient Arabic maxims and sayings.
This sumptuous oriental palace became an artistic model for other
palaces which the emirs were starting to erect in numerous locations
of the mountains and the coast.
At the same time, in 1831, the college of Mar Abda Harhariya (Jedaidet-Ghazir)
was opened. In this college Canaan Dib was in contact with monks
who had visited Italy and had been influenced by the works of Raphael,
Michael-Angelo and other great Renaissance masters. In the beginning,
Canaan was transcribing on his canvases whatever came through the
inspiration if his profound faith; later he devoted himself exclusively
to the painting of portraits.
Here, we must mention Daoud Corm who was one of the significant
pioneers of the artistic renaissance in Lebanon, at the end of the
19th and the beginning of the 20th century. His name will forever
remain linked to that of Emir Beshir and the college of Jedaidet-Ghazir.
His father was named Semaan Hokayyem and was from Ghosta. Moreover,
he was at this time one of the few people able to have mastered
foreign languages like Latin and Italian. The emir, on the other
hand, was looking for someone knowledgeable in foreign languages
to appoint as tutor for his children. They, in turn, would then
be able to give audience for foreign ambassadors without the need
of interpreter. Semaan was thus called in to fulfill this need.
Since he was quite stubborn, Emir Beshir gave him the nickname of
Corm, which stayed with him and finally became his family name.
For 18 years, Semaan remained as tutor of the emirís Sons and was
also responsible for his wivesí private accounting. He married Maryam,
the daughter of Hani, from Ghazir, and confidante of Sitt Hasan
Jihan, the emirís second wife. She bore him three sons, the most
famous of whom was Daoud Corm.
On the cost which had become a bridgehead, a network of international
communications, a cultural, touristic and commercial center especially
in Beirut, art began to open up to strong outside and foreign influences.
All at once, this period witnessed the birth of the theater, commercial
printing, public library, the newspaper and the university.
This period of looking outward was characterized by the large number
of ďorientalistĒ artists who converged on the coast and set out
to depict with loving care its smallest nooks and crannies. They
were fascinated by the clean and pure air, the natural beauty, the
remnants of the past, the oriental aspect of the constructions and
the dress of the natives. The first of these foreign painters was
the Englishman Bartlett, who came to Lebanon in 1834. he installed
his easel on the shores of Beirut and in its suburbs and painted
the sea, minarets, towers, white houses, sycamores, fig trees, men
in Arab costume and women wearing the tantur on their head.
Vignal came somewhat later and specialized in watercolor. He left
behind a Kfarshima landscape, a scene from a local café in
Dbayye, a view from Minet el-Hoson where both Beirut coast and the
mountains can be seen.
These foreign «orientalist» artists were originators
of school of «marine» painting. It was born in Beirut
in the middle of the 19th century and was above all dedicated to
painting boats and the sea. The European influence was not alone
in making itself felt at this school. On the contrary, the Turkish
tradition whose style was prevalent in all the provinces of the
Empire also played a definite role in the art of this «marine»
school, in Beirut and Tripoli. Among its direct influences, we could
point out its preoccupation with depicting historical events, especially
battles, and interest in introducing to the canvas the largest possible
number of characters, so as to emphasize the historical significance
of the events.
One of the pioneers of this «marine» school was a puny
but well-groomed boy who used to spend endless hours contemplating
the sea and the waves. He was Ibrahim Sarabiyye from Beirut. He
painted portraits and landscapes but his outstanding achievements
were in painting the sea and boats. One of his masterpieces is a
large picture representing the welcome of the German Emperor Wilhelm
II at the port of Beirut. The harbor is seen decorated with flags,
thronged with people and filled with units of squadron fleet. On
the piers, several horse-drawn carriages mindle with the crowd and
ferry people dressed in their local traditional costume. Sarabiyye
handled his brushes with extreme lightness and refinement. He had
an acute sense of observation and an amazing ability to underline
colors, lights and air transparency. He excelled in painting the
motion and reflection of water; on this point, he recalls the pictures
of the celebrated Venitian artist Canaletto.
At the same time, another boy by the name of Ali Jammal was beginning
to show his tastes and talent in one of the dark and narrow streets
of Beirut. The greatest portion of his time was spent gazing at
the blue immensity of the sea. As a young man he decided to go to
Istanbul and to enter War School from which he graduated as a naval
officer. While on the Bosphorus, he painted a large number of pictures
filled with life and power. He settled down in Istanbul and worked
as an art teacher in several government schools. His works display
his complete mastery of all genres of painting: portraits, animal
life, and landscapes. What is noteworthy is his sharp and precise
drawing, exactness of color, his solid technique and the serene
Another pioneer to be mentioned here is a young man from the Dimashqiyye
family. He is the author of a painting showing the warship Victoria
sinking in the waters of Tripoli, at the time the English fleet
was sailing in the area.
In addition to Dimashqiyye, let us mention a few other names: Hassan
Tannir, Salim Haddad from Abayh, Muhammad Said Meríi from Basta
district and Nalib Bekhazi from Ashrafiyye district. Meríi immigrated
to America, Haddad to Egypt and Bekhazi to Russia. The most outstanding
of these artists was Salim Haddad who in his time was widely renowned
in Egypt(3). To sum up, the great merit of this
«marine» school was to have been able to paint and underline
the warm and luminous atmosphere of the Lebanese coast.
There appeared at this juncture the nonpareil figure of Sheikh Ibrahim
Yaziji. The son of Nassif Yaziji, he was born on March 2, 1847 in
Beirut, in the district of Zokak el-Blatt. The Yaziji family had
sought refuge in Beirut in order to flee from the dissensions which
were ravaging the mountains. In fact, the move to Beirut on the
part of the Yaziji and other families turned out to be a stroke
of luck for the American missionaries, school directors or institute
and university presidents. All these establishments, especially
those founded after 1834, were in dire need of teachers with a perfect
knowledge of the Arabic language and literature.
The vast Yaziji residence(4) contained an important
mass of precious manuscripts. It also housed a literary circle with
a gathering of intellectuals, poets, artists, around a man whose
authority was universally recognized.
Ibrahim grew up in such an environment. He began his literary career
with poetry but, quickly, his preferences leaned towards the sciences
of language, literary composition and art. In all these fields of
knowledge, he displayed uncommon talent. He was even one of the
best calligraphers of his time.
This art of calligraphy was closely related to printing which had
first been lithographic and was now based on characters. Ibrahim
Yaziji played a capital part in the design and manufacture of printing
types. He improved and simplified the symbols which then become
closer to Latin characters, thereby becoming better adapted to modern
But, of his artistic production, what is of greatest interest to
us are his drawings in color and charcoal done for his friends and
relatives. What remains of his abundant production testifies to
his sharp touch, his forceful expression, his refined taste in matching
colors and light, in rendering the most subtle nuances of feeling
Among the works that Viscount Philippe de Tarazi, the founder of
the National Library, was able to retrieve and which he transferred
to the Library is a self-portrait done with the help of a mirror:
he is seen with his head dressed in a Maghrebine tarbush, his waist
held in a cashmere belt, and his hair curled with an iron and falling
over his ears as was the Beiruti custom of the time(5);
and the portrait of his sister, the poetess Warde Yaziji, a vivid
picture of her strong personality and of poetic beauty.
It must be pointed out here that the greatest parts of the works
of the period of awakening are lost. What few examples remain, though
show that this art was nevertheless the work of amateurs, in spite
of its having some characteristics of true art. The majority of
these artists had neither sufficient foundation in art nor adequate
training. If their work received any acclaim, it was due to the
artistsí tireless labor, their sense of observation and their love
Raif Shadudi, however, is the only painter of the period to have
applied the normative principles of art. During his short career,
this realistic artist was mostly interested in portraits. His works
show strength in drawing, rich colors and exactness of facial expression.
He is a real precursor of the renaissance of art in Lebanon.
dawn of Renaissance
of the artistic renaissance in Lebanon appeared towards the end
of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Their success
was due to their passionate love of art which pushed them along
the deliberate path of systematic study and specialization. They
went to Rome, Paris, London, and Brussels in order to be trained
by great teachers, to get first hand knowledge of their style, of
the masterpieces of the various schools from the Renaissance up
to their time. Nothing could have stopped them in their march forward.
In this way, Daoud Corm who already at the age of 10 was sketching
birds on the rocks of Ghazir was determined, at any cost, to leave
for Rome in order to begin his training.
He left for Rome in 1870; he was 12 years old. His dogged determination
manifested itself for the first time when he managed to force his
way through to Roberto Bompiani, the foremost artist in Rome and
the official painter of the King of Italy.
The story of the incident is worth telling. Daoud had brought along
his works from Lebanon, with the intention of showing them to Bompiani.
Many times he had attempted to get an interview but to no avail
because the servants tirelessly denied him access to the house.
Once, after they had again turned him away, they threw his canvases
to the ground. Corm shouted, furious. The master of the house came
out and saw the mess, the pictures lying on the ground. He was straight
away impressed by the careful work he saw in them and hastily picked
them up himself. Daoud was them given the warmest welcome and was
finally admitted to the house. Bompiani decided to adopt Corm as
his only disciple, to the exclusion of all others.
Cormís dedication in the pursuit of art training explains his determination
to frequent most of the institutes of painting in Rome. With a perfectionist
spirit and a passion for art, Corm practiced his craft till the
end of his life. He painted up to his last moments and died in 1930(6).
Corm is but one example among several other artisans of artistic
renaissance in its early stages. Of these other forerunners the
names of Habib Serour, Khalil Saleeby, Nimetallah Maadi must also
be mentioned. These artistsí greatest merit is to have introduced
into Lebanon the basic principles of art technique, to have emphasized
the importance of light and shadow in the process of elaboration
and to have grasped the essence of aesthetic work. Form which up
to then had remained inert and fixed became, thanks to them, expressive
It should be noted that the first generation of artists was spared
the danger of uprooted ness and its concomitant painful alienation
because they had adopted a classical style which had enabled them
to find their place in their environment.
When a painter like Khalil Saleeby rejected classicism(7)
and its traditional themes, well-know to the public, only
to succumb to the seduction of Impressionism, he could not help
but feel abruptly and painfully cut off from his conservative environment;
his life then turned sour and ended in tragedy.
Saleeby showed little concern for religious themes whereas Corm,
Serour and Maadi, on the contrary, used their talent primarily to
paint religious picture for churches and convents. They also did
portraits and occasional still life of fruits, birds and fish. Their
frame of reference was strictly traditional. Even though they were
not ďfuturisticĒ revolutionaries like Saleeby, they nevertheless
knew how to use their talent in serving the national feeling. Everything
in their work, themes, color, rendering, bears the indelible stamp
of their environment. They concentrated on representing native types
dressed in their national costumes, as well as the most characteristic
landscapes. It has been said that Daoud Cormís portrait of a member
of the Saad family is by itself a condensed testimony of a whole
era. Likewise, Habib Serourís painting ďMountain PriestĒ exhibits
all the features of mountain society at that time. From the first
generation, among the names that stand out, let us mention Philippe
Mourani. He had stayed in Paris and his work, although outwardly
classical, nevertheless radiates oriental imagination and feelings.
Shukri Musawwar who had immigrated to America also produced an art
strictly oriental in its outlook. His pictures evoke sweetness and
show an acute sensitivity in drawing and color. He had a predilection
for oriental themes such as Bedouin encampments and city soups.
His painting «Sheikh reading» has been widely known
and celebrated in America.
Then suddenly, without transition, the second generation of artists
came into the foreground. Its leaders were the sculptor Youssef
Hoyeck, the great precursor of modern sculpture in Lebanon, Kahlil
Gibran, Youssef Ghossoub and Georges Corm. Gibran and Hoyeck, both
from mountain stock, gave the impression of «uprooted»
people. This was the consequence of the contradictory influences
to which they were exposed during their contact with various western
schools; but this apparent uprootedness never reached the extreme
of loss of self-identity. Their idea was first to «take»
from others, finally to end up with original creation, but all the
while rejecting every encroachment by the traditional religious
art in the mountain.
Hoyeck had indeed gone to Rome and Paris at a time when religious
themes could not have been more foreign to the world of sculpture.
He took upon himself to achieve the extraordinary symbiosis of two
completely heterogeneous styles, that is the facile and graceful
style of the Italian Renaissance and Rodinís tormented and protuberant
style. He always wanted to bring about an agreement between the
publicís taste, the imperatives of aesthetic representation and
the expression of feelings and passions. In addition, he was undermined
by a painful conflict which in the end killed him. His disciples
from the fourth generation as well as his own works can testify
to the importance of his role in the rebirth of sculpture.
Similarly, Kahlil Gibranís art, like that of Shukri Musawwar, developed
away from Lebanon, in the USA. It is the result of the extremely
dense training which he received in Paris. But Gibran was born in
Becharre and had emigrated as an adolescent. Throughout his life,
he was haunted by the problems of a feudal Lebanese society and
of the Arab world in general.
His art was in close symbiotic relationship with his literary talent
and the writerís hand and genius can easily be seen in his artistic
works. In the same way, his written production bears the obvious
mark of the painter. Gibranís literary production which received
considerable recognition from the Arab world and many other countries
was fed by three main sources: first, the channel of symbolist poetry,
but not the poetry of phantasmagoria and illusion, rather poetry
which takes its root in human reality; second, the philosophical
channel based on evangelical love, the song of Zarathustra and meditations
of the founders of the great far-eastern religions; third, the channel
of pictorial art, at its highest level of perfection. These same
sources transpire in Gibranís painting. His art is also closely
related to that of Leonardo da Vinci and not unlike that of the
Englishman William Blake, the mystic painter of the 19th century.
Gibranís powerful originality, nevertheless, enabled him to remain
independent of both.
The sculptor Youssef Ghossoub (1898-1967) from Phanar also belongs
to this second generation of artists. He received his basic art
training from Mukhtar, the great Egyptian sculptor, and his technique
was sharpened in Paris and Rome (1927-1935). His style followed
a traditional academic line. He left behind in Lebanon, Syria and
Palestine more than a hundred sculptures and statues. Finally, Georges
Corm also should be included in this group. He not only produced
classical drawings but also wrote studies on art and artists.
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On Martyrsí Square, in the location of the old Beirut stock
Exchange, where Cinema Opera now stands.
(2)- In 1610, a Lebanese student from Rome founded
the print shop of Mar Qozhaya in Qadisha Valley.
(3)- Other names of this period of awakening in
art were: Najib Fayyad (Beirut), Abdallah Matar (lehfed), and the
Myryalai Ibrahim Najjar (Deir el-Qamar) who worked as a physician
in the Ottoman army.
(4)- In the American Mission building (today Beirut
College for Women) one can still see the large hall where, as early
as 1847, the translators of the Bible used to gather: Dr. Smith,
Sheikh Nassif Yaziji, Dr. Van Dyck and Muíallim Butros Bustani.
(5)- Ibrahim Yaziji died in 1906 in Matarieh, a
(6)- Pope Pius IX had heard about his talent and
summoned him to paint his portrait. Later on, he became the painter
of the Belgian royal family, under the reign of Leopold II. Back
in Lebanon he painted the Lebanese and Syrian governors. In 1887
he went to Alexandria and did the portraits of several members of
Khedive Toufiq Iís family. In 1894 the Khedive Abbas II invited
him to Cairo and, there, Corm produced a remarkable and accomplished
(7)- In his youth Saleeby followed the lime of
academic classicism. Among his early canvases: his self-portrait
as a young man. Its style is traditional and the colors are solemn.
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