This Day in Jewish History, 1911

A Man Who Painted Bitter Life as He Saw It Dies

'Monumental treatment of the commonplace': Life isn't pretty and Dutch painter Jozef Israels did not shy from depicting its pain.

Dutch National Archief, Wikimedia Commons

On August 12, 1911, Jozef Israels, a Dutch painter revered both by art historians and by early Zionists, died, in Scheveningen, The Hague. Israels was an artist who went through a number of phases in his career, before becoming a leader of what is known as the Hague School of peasant-genre painting.

Jozef Israels was born in the northern Netherlands town of Groningen on January 27, 1824. His father, Hartog Abraham Israels, was a money changer who expected his son, like him, to pursue a life in business. His mother, the former Mathilda Salomon Polack, had hopes that Jozef, who received a traditional Jewish education, would pursue a career in the rabbinate.

Both ambitions were to be frustrated. From early on, Jozef was drawn to art, and his parents allowed him to study painting, beginning at age 11, at Groningen’s Minerva Academy. Later, put to work in his father’s office, Jozef would sketch in the margins of the ledger books he labored over. That apparently persuaded his father that the son was destined to be an artist.

'Carrying a drowned man'

Israels began studying at the professional level in his hometown before heading to Amsterdam in 1842. There he studied with two teachers, Jan Adam Kruseman and Jan Willem Pieneman. The years 1845-1847 were spent in Paris, where he developed his technique by copying Renaissance and Baroque masterworks, and took instruction at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

A turning point for Israels came in 1855, when, recuperating from an illness, he spent time at the fishing village of Zandvoort. Israels was taken by the difficult lives he witnessed among the fishermen and their families, and he began depicting them on canvas.

The works that came out of the Zandvoort experienced are dark, somber and filled with feeling and compassion. The art historian Sheila Samuels describes his 1856 painting “Passing Mother’s Grave,” in which we see a father and his two children silently walking past a gravestone, as “a monumental treatment of the commonplace.” An 1860 work, “Fishermen Carrying a Drowned Man,” is no less powerful in its combination of drama and stoicism.

Embraced by early Zionists

Israels’ use of chiaroscuro – the combination of light and dark – is often compared to Rembrandt’s, and like the master (whom Israels idolized), he often painted the poor residents of the Netherlands’ Jewish ghettoes. He also returned to Jewish subjects in the final decades of his career, most famously in “The Jewish Wedding,” whose bride is believed to be the artist’s own daughter.

In his book “The Dutch Intersection,” about modern Jewish history in the Netherlands, Yosef Kaplan tells how Israels was embraced by the early Zionists as “a man who had gained world fame and was held in high esteem in the artistic European world, a proud Dutchman who had nonetheless maintained his Jewish identity.” In his diary, Theodor Herzl described visiting Israels at his Hague studio in 1899, calling him “a small, strong, wise old Jew.”

Israels, Herzl recounted, was “currently painting David playing the harp before Saul. I explained to him about Zionism and he was carried away; he found the idea enchanting.”

Yet not a true Zionist?

Although, according to Kaplan, Israels denied ever having become a true Zionist, he had other connections with Jews who were.

In 2009, there was flurry of confused publicity when a great-great-nephew of Boris Schatz (who had founded both the Bezalel art school and the collection that formed the basis for the Israel Museum) tried to sell an Israels self-portrait at auction, intending to donate the proceeds to the museum. Israels had given Schatz the canvas as a gift, and it had been with the family for a century.

When Sotheby’s did its background check, it discovered that the Israel Museum had the same painting in its collection, though not on display. Was one of them a forgery?

An investigation ensued, and concluded that the canvas held by the Israel Museum was the original, and the other one a copy, perhaps done by one of Schatz’s students, with no criminal intent behind it.

Jozef Israels was married to Aleida Schaap. They had two children, Mathilde Anna and Isaac Lazarus (1865-1934), who became a very highly regarded painter in his own right.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen