Through a career that was actively engaged in the founding of national art institutions, cultural pedagogy, and a civically oriented, domestic aesthetic, Omar Onsi helped to create the iconography of modern Lebanon. His rural landscapes are best known, but he also sketched out the national repertoire of ethnic types and customs. More importantly, his early work contributed to conceptualizing the socially progressive role of the aesthetically receptive citizen. Onsi was well situated to become a paragon of this new approach to art. His father, Abd al-Rahman al-Unsi, practiced medicine, owned a pharmacy that provided a comfortable living, and dabbled in painting. His mother, Atiqa al-Salam, was also similarly cultured and hailed from one of the city's rising political families, neither beholden to the retreating Ottoman Sultan nor beguiled by the occupying French. As the progeny of this union, Onsi combined in his art cosmopolitan erudition, nationalist politics, and market accessibility. His paintings sold very well during his lifetime. Many of his works were commissioned to represent Lebanon in government-sponsored events and institutions, and of these, many have since become canonized in post-civil war Lebanon by an extensive retrospective in 1997.
Onsi acknowledged as his first teacher the prominent Beiruti artist Khalil Saleeby (1870 - 1928), who began receiving the college student around 1920 at his atelier across the street from the American University of Beirut. Onsi's first published works date from this time. Another component of his training was his trekking with the Muslim Scouts, and early notebooks show how Onsi collected natural views (manathir at-tabeeʿah) of the surrounding countryside, inhabitants, and fauna on such trips. From 1923 - 1927, Onsi served at the royal court in Amman as the instructor of Prince Abdallah's son Talal. He used the time to document visually and ethnographically the indigenous populations, reflecting an interest in the peoples and cultures of the region that he would later pursue in the Hula Marsh area (Palestine), Mount Swaida (Syria), and among Bedouin populations residing in Beirut. In 1927, Onsi moved to Paris where he took courses for the next three years at several Left Bank private academies that, unlike the École des Beaux-Arts, accepted non-French and female students, among them the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and the Académie Colarossi. During this time, he also became friendly with fellow expatriates artists Youssef al-Huwayyik and Khalil Gibran. Onsi became well-versed in European art history and embraced it as a universal cultural heritage, remarking of Raphael and Da Vinci's achievements: "That is tradition. It is mine. It is yours. It became part of our life." Stylistically, he valorized naturalism as represented for him by the work of Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Although Onsi appreciated what he saw as the courage, liberation, and honesty of Impressionism, he rejected Surrealist, Expressionist, and abstract art alike for being elitist, subjective, and narcissistic.
Onsi's approach to art has caused much misunderstanding. One reason for this is that his work, viewed from the perspective of subsequent developments in Euro-American art, appears regressive or at least anachronistic. Secondly, viewing his work with a Eurocentric lens confuses it with Impressionism. Although Onsi shared a predilection for the plein-air picturesque with French Impressionists such as Renoir and Pissarro, he disdained the individualist philosophy motivating their work and insisted on a "humbler," as he would put it, and ultimately pious (monotheistic, essentially Sufic) basis for his own production. What Onsi took from Renoir and Impressionism was a weariness with convention and an emphasis on the artist's sensitivity to his material. In 1937 he informed one studio visitor: "I am completely in agreement with Renoir that when you approach Nature with theories, Nature will knock all down." The momentary and the random in worldly appearances that captivated the Impressionists and became their vehicle for emphasizing the artist's unique vision were, for Onsi, manifestations of divinity—majestic but often overlooked—which could reform the very being of the attentive viewer.
Onsi's theory of art gave "natural views" an ethical imperative in the rapidly urbanizing, economically precarious, and socially explosive world he inhabited under the challenges of French colonization and Lebanese national independence. His artistic calling was "not to rival Creation" but to become "receptive and responsive" to it so as to render these views in portable, accessible, cherishable form for urban audiences carving out new public and domestic spaces. Onsi focused on beauty in mundane, mute, remote or disregarded scenes from the natural world (most notably in the area of Mt. Lebanon where he regularly summered, but also in the details of plant and animal life), and he assiduously developed a technique to remove traces of himself as a rationalizing being and to react unselfconsciously with sure draughtsmanship, direct brushwork, and heightened sensitivity to optical effects. He described his ideal technique as involving hours of observation before rapidly producing a graphic version. His earliest work always commenced with pencil drawing, but by the 1940s he was comfortable working straight with color in rapid juxtapositions that nonetheless insist on profundity and gravity. He also worked occasionally in clay and bronze; a few figurines in these media remain.
In contrast to his peers, Moustafa Farroukh and Cesar Gemayel, Onsi has entered art history as an apolitical aesthete and a social recluse. Yet, in addition to his steady production for the modern, middle-class domicile, Onsi's constant contribution to the institutionalization and professionalization of fine art imprinted his vision of modern art on the new Lebanese republic and tied its reception to the story of Lebanese nationalism. Upon returning to Beirut in 1930, Onsi taught art at several new educational institutions, including the Religious College (a branch of al-Azhar), where art education was to be part of "modern" religion. (He also gave private lessons). His artwork was regularly on public view, in solo and collective exhibitions in Beirut, and he regularly participated in state-sponsored shows, both locally and internationally (for example, at the Colonial Exhibition in Paris in 1937 and in the Lebanese stand at the New York World's Fair in 1939). He also accepted government commissions for allegorical murals to decorate state institutions. In 1934, he helped to establish the Society of the Friends of Arts, which established an annual national salon. Onsi published his views on art in the local press and, especially during the early years of the founding of the Lebanese republic, lectured to local organizations for intellectual and social development, such as the Cénacle Libanais (1947) and the Arab Cultural Club (1948). He was a co-founder of the Lebanese Association for Artists, Painters, and Sculptors in 1957, and when the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum of the Beirut Municipality was founded in 1960, he was appointed a member of its board.
Onsi continued to travel internationally in the 1940s and 50s, and his work seems to have showed in Germany, Spain, Italy, and Egypt. In 1969, he died of stomach cancer. Onsi's impact persisted in the post-war reconstruction period through a monumental retrospective held at the Sursock Museum in 1997.
|2012||Le corps découvert, thematic exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, France|
|____||Art from Lebanon: Modern and contemporary artists, Volume 1, 1880-1975, collective exhibition organized by Nour Salamé Abillama at Beirut Exhibition Center, Beirut, Lebanon|
|2010||Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar|
|1997 ||Omar Onsi retrospective exhibition organized by Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1994 ||Pastel in Lebanese Art, collective exhibition the Lebanese American University (formerly Beirut University College), Beirut, Lebanon|
|____ ||Omar Onsi, organized by Diana Dabliz Kaaki at International College, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____ ||Collective exhibition organized by Jumana Rizq at Maraya Gallery, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1993 ||Still Life in Lebanese Art, collective exhibition the Lebanese American University (formerly Beirut University College), Beirut, Lebanon|
|1991||Conference and exhibition organized by Mansour Onsi and Joseph Matar at Summerland Hotel, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1989||Lebanon – The Artist's View, 200 years of Lebanese Painting, collective exhibition organized by the British Lebanese Association at the Barbicon Centre, London and the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, France|
|1987||Les Artistes témoins d'eux-mêmes, Autoportraits et portraits (1919-1987), collective exhibition at Galerie les Cimaises, Nahr al-Kalb|
|1980||Un Onsi Inconnu, exhibition organized by Amal Traboulsi at Galerie L'Epreuve d'Artiste, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1979||Hommage à Omar Onsi, exhibition organized by Samia Tutunji at the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1966 ||Salon d'Automne, collective exhibition at the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1965||Salon d'Automne, collective exhibition at the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____ ||Confrontations: 5 Generations of Lebanese painters and sculptors, collective exhibition organized by L'Orient newspaper, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____||Collective exhibition organized by Joseph Matar at the Municipality Building, Jounieh, Lebanon|
|____||Sao Paulo Biennial VII, Brazil|
|1964 ||Salon d'Automne, collective exhibition at the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____ ||Collective exhibition at La Sagesse High School, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____ ||Retrospective, retrospective exhibition organized by Yusif Khal at Gallery One, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____ ||Salon des Fleurs, collective exhibition hosted by Galerie l'Oeil, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1963 ||Salon d'Automne, collective exhibition at the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____ ||Salon du Printemps, collective exhibition organized by the Lebanese Ministry of National Education, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1962||Salon d'Automne, collective exhibition at the Nicolas Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1959 ||Salon du Printemps, collective exhibition organized by the Lebanese Ministry of National Education, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____ ||Alexandria Biennial III, Egypt|
|1957||Alexandria Biennial II, Egypt|
|1956||UNESCO Salon d'Automne, collective exhibition organized by the Lebanese Ministry of National Education and Fine Arts, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1955||UNESCO Salon d'Automne, collective exhibition organized by the Lebanese Ministry of National Education and Fine Arts, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____||Salon Printemps, collective exhibition organized by the Lebanese Ministry of Education, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1954||Salon d'Automne, collective exhibition organized by the Lebanese Ministry of Education, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____ ||UNESCO Salon Printemps, collective exhibition organized by the Lebanese Ministry of National Education and Fine Arts, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1951||Le peintre Omar Onsi presente, solo exhibition at La Galerie d'Art Fakhreddine, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1949 ||Solo exhibition at Centre d'Etudes Supérieures Français, France|
|1948||Defense of East and West, collective exhibition organized by UNESCO|
|____ ||Solo exhibition organized by Saloua Raouda Choucair, at the Arab Cultural Club, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____ ||Lebanese Artists, organized by John Lewis at the American Information Office, Dhur al-Shuwayr, Lebanon|
|1947 ||Salon des Artistes Libanais, collective exhibition organized by the Lebanese Ministry of Education at the National Museum, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1941||Salon des Amis des Arts, collective exhibition organized by the Society of the Friends of the Arts, at the Lebanese Parliament Building, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1940 ||Salon des Amis des Arts, collective exhibition organized by the Society of the Friends of the Arts, at the Lebanese Parliament Building, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1939||Salon des Amis des Arts, collective exhibition organized by the Society of the Friends of the Arts, at the Lebanese Parliament Building, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____ ||New York World's Fair, Lebanese Pavilion, organized by Charles Corm, New York, United States of America|
|1938||Salon des Amis des Arts, collective exhibition organized by the Society of the Friends of the Arts, at the Cercle de l'Union Française, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1937 ||Solo exhibition of watercolors organized by Iskandir Abu Sha`ar at the Galerie Libanaise, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1935 ||Exposition Omar Onsi Peinture, Aquarelles, solo exhibition at the School of Arts and Crafts, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1933 ||Collective exhibition organized by the Artistic Society of Beirut, at the St. Georges Hotel, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____ ||Arab Arts, collective exhibition, Jerusalem|
|1932||Festival de Dornach, Switzerland|
|____ ||Solo exhibition in December at the School of Arts and Crafts, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____||Exhibition of Paintings and Water-colors by Omar Onsi, solo exhibition organized by C. C. K. Corrie at the Terra Santa College, Jerusalem|
|____||Solo exhibition in February at the School of Arts and Crafts, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1931 ||Colonial Exhibition, collective exhibition organized by M. Pierre-Alype, Paris, France|
|1930||Collective exhibition organized by Maurice Zwain, at the School of Arts and Crafts, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1921 ||Beirut Industrial Fair, as one of Khalil Saleeby's students, Lebanon|
Awards and Honors
|2004||Public sculpture installed in his honor in the park of the Serail, (Lebanese government offices), Beirut, Lebanon|
|1968||Said Akl Prize|
|1964||Lebanese Ministry of Education Medallion|
|1963||Lebanese Philanthropic Merit Award|
|1956||Lebanese National Order of the Cedars, Merit Award|
|1947 ||Lebanese National Order of the Cedars, Knights Rank|
Lebanese art, manathir al-tabi`ah (natural views), aesthetically receptive citizen, Society of the Friends of Art, Sufic piety, nationalism
Agémian, Sylvia. "À propos de Omar Unsi, `Umar Unsi, et O. Onsi." Omar Onsi, Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum (Beirut: Musée Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock, 1997), 45-51.Further Reading
Attar, Majda. "Maʿa 'Umar al-Unsi."Sawt al-Marʾa 9, no. 1 (1953): 20-22.
Jawaba, "Exhibition of the Artist Omar Onsi. " Al-Maʿrid 12, no. 988 (1932): 20.
Jawaba, "Al-Maʿrid al-istiʿmāri wa ma waraʾ al-bihar." Al-Maʿrid 11, no. 955 (1931): 12.
Jawaba, "Al-musawwirrūn al-wataniyyūn wa al-ajānib yaʿaridūna athārahum al-fanniyya." Al-Maʿrid 10, no. 935 (1930): 8-9.
Labban, Abd al-Rahman. 'Umar al-Unsi. Beirut: Dar al-Ahad, 1952.
Onsi, Omar. "Art Notes." Unpublished manuscript. Joseph Matar Archives, Edde, Lebanon. No date.
Onsi, Omar. "Two Attitudes." Unpublished manuscript. Joseph Matar Archives, Edde, Lebanon. No date.
Proux, Marcelle. "Onsi le silencieux." L'Orient 14, no. 108 (1937):1-2.
[unsigned], "Exhibition of Lebanese Artists." Sawt al-Marʾa 4, no. 4 (1948): 34.
Al-Unsi, 'Umar. "Al-khulq al-khalaq," Unpublished manuscript. Nada Onsi Archives, Beirut, Lebanon. No date.
Al-Unsi, 'Umar. "Al-madrassah at-taʾthīriyyah fi at-taṣwīr." Al-Adib 7, no. 8 (1948): 9-15.
Al-Unsi, 'Umar. Observations of Bedouin Life. Unpublished manuscript. Nada Onsi Archives, Beirut, Lebanon. No date.
Cyr, Georges. Omar Onsi. Les Peintres du Liban, 3. Beirut: L' Imprimerie Catholique, 1950.
Faloughi, Joseph. The Artist Omar Onsi. Diploma dissertation. Lebanese University, Beirut, 1978.
Fani, Michel. "Onsi, Omar." Dictionnaire de la peinture au Liban. Beirut: (Éditions de l'Éscalier, 1998), 207-214.
Musée Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock. Omar Onsi. Beirut: Musée Nicolas Sursock, 1997.
Naef, Silvia. A la recherché d'une modernité arabe: L'évolution des arts plastiques en Egypte, au Liban et en Irak. Geneva: Slatkine Editions, 1996.
Scheid, Kirsten. "Necessary Nudes: Hadatha and Mu`asara in the Lives of Modern Lebanese." International Journal of Middle East Studies 42 (2010): 203-230.
Stétié, Salah. Le Jardinier des apparences. Beirut: Conseil des Rélations Économiques Éxterieures, 1985.