Written by Rami Karim

Omar Onsi was born in Tallet el Khayat, Beirut, in 1901. His father, the physician, Abdel Rahman Onsi, named him in homage to his grandfather, a poet. A painter himself, Abdel Rahman, introduced his son to art through a visit to portraitist Habib Serour’s studio, but he ultimately insisted on more practical education for Omar. Onsi enrolled at the medical school of the Syrian Protestant College (now the American University of Beirut), where his illustrations in a student publication drew the attention of Khalil Saleeby, a painter who invited the fledgling artist to train at his Bliss Street studio. Onsi accepted despite his parents’ opposition and soon gained artistic success, winning the silver medal at the Beirut International Fair in 1921. He left medicine shortly thereafter to focus solely on art.

In 1922 the young painter traveled to Jordan, where he taught art and English to young members of the Jordanian royal family. In his free time, he painted their portraits, as well as Bedouin scenes and desert landscapes. He was inspired by the region’s harsh sun and dry sands as contrasted by perpetual blue skies. In 1927 Onsi moved to Paris to study at the Académie Julian, where he studied the École de Barbizon and Fontainebleau movements closely. He also befriended the Lebanese sculptor Youssef Howayek and met and married Emma Morand. 

Onsi returned to Beirut in 1930, and Morand joined him three years later. They moved into his childhood home, where he painted members of his social circles as well as scenes of the Lebanese mountains and their villages. He also painted Beirut’s urban landscape, at that time largely underdeveloped, including a seaside lined with date palms and cactus plants. During the 1930s, the painter established a local reputation through several group and solo exhibitions. Meanwhile, Emma passed away suddenly in 1934, and for the next five years, Onsi’s Painting expressed the melancholy that washed over his life after the loss of his beloved wife. In 1939 he married Marie Bauer, an Alsacian woman who taught at the Collège Protestant Laïque and began to return to himself.

Though canonically Lebanese, Onsi’s work differs from that of his contemporaries in its modest colors, textures, and shapes. During travels and exhibitions in Europe, the Middle East, and North America, Onsi depicted diverse landscapes he visited, though his most frequented theme remained Lebanon. Further, although he painted nude figures – a practice that was still taboo at the time – and was deeply engrossed in the contemporary Lebanese art scene, his own work remained primarily concerned with traditional scenes. He favored watercolor to other mediums for its vivid delicacy, especially in depicting Beirut’s sunlit views. Onsi had a knack for accurately sketching whatever lay before him. Though minimal in application, his brushstrokes contained information pertaining to the color and mood of his subjects and their environments. In a 1948 conference at Cénacle Libanais titled Painting, he argued that “art that doesn’t express the life and culture of a society cannot service,” adding that aesthetically valuable art required intellectual grounding.

Onsi was a co-founder of the Lebanese Association for Artists, Painters, and Sculptors in 1957, and became a board member at the Sursock Museum upon its opening in 1960. He died of stomach cancer in Lebanon in 1969.

Sources

Abillama, Nour Salamé, Marie Tomb, Amin Maalouf, Joseph Tarrab, Cesar Nammour, Maha Azizé Sultan, Fayçal Sultan, and Gregory Buchakjian. Art from Lebanon: modern and contemporary artists, 216-227. Beirut, Lebanon: Wonderful editions, 2012.

Nammour, Cesar, and Gabriela Schaub. Resonances, 82 Lebanese Artists Reviewed by Helen Khal. Beirut: Fine Arts Publishing, 2011.

"Omar Onsi." Mathaf Encyclopedia of Modern Art and the Arab World. Accessed May 14, 2019. http://www.encyclopedia.mathaf.org.qa/en/bios/Pages/Omar-Onsi.aspx

Nammour, Cesar, and Gabriela Schaub. Resonances, 82 Lebanese Artists Reviewed by Helen Khal. Beirut: Fine Arts Publishing, 2011.