He was born into an upper-class family that moved to Istanbul while he was still a child. After attending the public schools, he was enrolled at the "Saint Benoit French High School" in Istanbul. Inspired by his father's interest in calligraphy, he also took private art lessons from Şevket Dağ. After he graduated, his father decided to send him to Paris to continue his studies.
In 1911, he was admitted to the Académie Julian and, later, found a position in the workshop of Fernand Cormon. However, he found himself more attracted to Corot and the Barbizon school, as opposed to Cormon's Academic style. He went home for a vacation, but was unable to return to France due to the outbreak of World War I, and served briefly in the Caucasian Campaign. He was mustered out after contracting typhus.
In 1917, he had his first showing at the "Galatasaray Exhibition" and was awarded a silver medal. Shortly after, he helped establish a workshop in Şişli, together with İbrahim Çallı, Sami Yetik, Ali Sami Boyar and others, who became known as the "Çallı Generation". He also travelled to Berlin to exhibit with Celal Esad Arseven, where they stayed for two years, working with Lovis Corinth and Max Liebermann.
In 1919, he returned home and became a teacher at the Osman Nuri Pasha Middle-School. The following year, he married Mediha Hanım, daughter of the Mullah Şefik Bey. They would separate after ten years of marriage and divorce just two months before his death. He resigned his position at the middle-school to travel in Italy. After coming home, he worked as an editorial director at İleri, a republican newspaper, then became an assistant manager at the "Sanayi-i Nefise Mektebi" (Academy of Fine Arts, now the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University).
In 1925, the Ministry of National Education held a contest to design a new Turkish Coat-of-Arms. İsmail won the contest, with an escutcheon that included Asena, a she-wolf from the folktales of the Göktürks, but the design was never used.
- Zeynep Rona (ed.) Namık İsmail, (Vol.1 of "Turkish painters"), Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 1992 ISBN 975-363-151-0
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