Jozef Israels. Part 1 – The Plight of the Fisherman

Portrait of Jozef Israels by Jan Veth (1887)
Portrait of Jozef Israels by Jan Veth (1887)

My previous three blogs looked at Russian landscape painters and although they were leading exponents of this 19th century genre they may have been unknown to many people nowadays.  The artist I am looking at today is probably also not known by most people but he had a great influence of the early works of the Dutch master, Vincent van Gogh.   Just before Christmas I went to Amsterdam to visit the newly refurbished Van Gogh Museum and I suggest that it is “must visit” museum for any travellers to the Dutch city.

Peasant Family at Table,  by Jozef Israels (1882)
Peasant Family at Table, by Jozef Israels (1882)

The museum was awash with colour from Van Gogh’s landscape paintings but I was fascinated by his darker early works and his fascination with the hard-working peasants and I wanted to know more about what influenced him to spend so much of his early life concentrating on depictions of the peasant class.  It was then I came across Jozef Israels and his 1882 painting entitled Peasant Family at the Table, a work of art which led to a similar depiction, by van Gogh, of peasants sitting around a table having a meal which is entitled The Potato Eaters and I featured this work of art in My Daly Art Display (Feb 7th 2012).  However this blog is not about Van Gogh but the Dutch artist, Jozef Israels who influenced him.  In this first blog about Jozef Israels I want to look at his paintings depicting the harsh life of fishermen and their families.

Josef Israels was a Dutch Jewish painter born in Groningen in January 1824.  His father was to Hartog Abraham Israel, a professional broker and merchant who had married Mathilda Solomon Polack.  Jozef was the third-born of ten children and he had six brothers and three sisters.  As is the case of many young aspiring artists, Jozef’s father did not see his son’s future as an artist but wanted him to carry on the family business and it was only after a long struggle and great determination that Jozef persuaded his father to let him study art.  It was a compromise, as during his artistic studies he worked as a stockbroker’s clerk in his father’s business.   At the age of eleven he received his first drawing lessons from the landscape artist J. Bruggink who worked at Minerva Academy in Groningen and a year later became a pupil of Johan Joeke Gabriel van Wicheren.   In 1838, aged fourteen he was tutored by the Groningen painter, Cornelis Bernudes Buys.

In 1842, shortly after his eighteenth birthday Jozef went to Amsterdam to study drawing under the tutelage of Jan Adam Kruseman and, in 1844, attended art classes at the Amsterdam Royal Academy of Art.  Kruseman had made his name as a painter of historical, biblical and genre scenes but was probably more famous for his portraiture.  In 1845 Jozef Israels left his native Netherlands and travelled to Paris where he worked in the studio of the neo-classical history painter, François-Édouard Picot.  Picot was one of the artists who was favoured by the French rulers of the time.  He was an esteemed artist who taught many of the aspiring artists of the time such as Alexandre Cabanel and William-Adolphe Bouguereau. His romantic historical paintings influenced Israels.  The Romanticism genre of Louis Gallait and Ari Scheffer also left their mark on the twenty-two year old. During his stay in Paris he attended classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts presided over by such artistic luminaries as James Pradier, Horace Vernet and Paul Delaroche and he would spend time at the Louvre where he copied the works of the great Masters.

The Academies at the time pushed the genre of paysage historique, historical landscape painting depicting idealised landscape works of art with their historical connotations.   This art genre went back to the 17th century Baroque era of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain and aspiring landscape painters from the Academies made their way to Italy to paint their landscapes interspersed with historical monuments, the settings of which were favoured by the dazzling Mediterranean sunlight. This favourable Italian climate had given the artists the chance to paint en plein air.

However, Jozef Israels, whilst he was living in the French capital, delved into the alternate world of landscape painting, the world of Realism, and the works of the Barbizon painters some of whom he had the chance to meet.  For them it was the landscape which was the beauty in itself and did not require the addition of mythological or biblical figures.  If figures were to be added it should be those of hard working peasants whose inclusion added reality to the work and dispensed with romanticism.  However Jozef Israels was not sold on their ideas for landscape painting and soon reverted to his painting which were more likely influenced by the painter Ari Scheffer (see My Daily Art Display May 15 2012 and Sept 30th 2014) depicting subjects from Romantic poetry or influenced by the work of the Belgian history painter, Louis Gallait and depicted figures from Dutch national history.

In 1847 Israels returned to Holland and his work concentrated on his portraiture and historical subjects, often with Jewish themes.    The problem for Israels was that by the 1850’s,  the genre of history paintings in the Netherlands was falling from favour and he realised that to sell his art he needed to think of a different painting genre.   Fate took a hand as Jozef was taken ill and in 1855, as a cure for his health problems, he moved out of the city and went to live in the small fishing village of Zandvoort, where he believed the sea air would aid his recovery.   He immersed himself in the local village life and became aware of the hard life endured by the village’s fishing community and he decided to record some of their sufferings in his works of art.   His paintings depicted the hard life of the fishermen and their families and the unforgiving nature of the sea.

Along mother's grave by Jozef Israels (1856)
Passing mother’s grave by Jozef Israels (1856)

In 1856 he painted one of his most famous works featuring Zandvoort fishing folk.  It was a life-size work measuring 224cms x 178cms  entitled Passing Mother’s Grave.  The painting depicts a fisherman passing his wife’s grave.   He walks hand in hand with his son whilst carrying his baby daughter.  The bare-footed trio alluded to the poverty of the fishing folk and for this trio life without the woman had added to their problems.The work is housed in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

Fishermen carrying drowned man by Jozef Israels (c.1861)
Fishermen carrying drowned man by Jozef Israels (c.1861)

Another work of art featuring the plight of fishermen and their families was Jozef Israels’ painting entitled Fishermen Carry a Drowned Man which is housed in the National Gallery in London.  It is thought that this work was completed around 1861, sometime after Jozef returned to Amsterdam from Zandvoort but used sketches he had made whilst living in the fishing village.  The work is all about suffering and the hard life experienced by fishermen and their families and it was this eking of sympathy from the observer which was so like that of Jean-François Millet and his peasant paintings. Let’s look at this sombre work with its dark grey skies.  A line of fishermen and their family trudge up the dunes from the shore.  A grief-stricken woman leads the way with her two children at her side.  They too are aware of the loss.  Maybe the woman is the widow of the dead fisherman.  She is leading the line of mourners.  Behind her the body of the dead fisherman is carried by two burly men whilst to the left of them is a weeping woman.  The dead man’s companions follow on carrying the fishing equipment from their boat. The work of art was exhibited at the 1861 Salon and in 1862 at the London International Exhibition and was hailed a triumphant success.

Anxiously Waiting by Jozef Israels
Anxiously Waiting by Jozef Israels

The third painting by Jozef Israels with this fishing/sea-going motif is entitled Anxiously Waiting.  Once again observers of this work can empathize with the woman we see sitting on the dunes looking out to sea. On her knee sits her baby child.  She is bare-footed which tells us of her and her family’s financial state.   The sky has an orange hue indicating an oncoming storm.  We see the white crests of the waves which signify the wind is beginning to increase in its ferocity.  Her husband has left home in the fishing boat and has yet to return and she anxiously awaits sight of his boat.

Unloading the Catch by Jozef Israels
Unloading the Catch by Jozef Israels

In his painting Unloading the Catch we see that fishing was not just about the men that went to sea but the wives, parents and children who needed to help, notwithstanding their age or their state of health.  Look at the line of helpers.  An elderly woman bent over supporting herself with her cane, a man with a basket over his shoulder holding the hand of his daughter, two mothers carrying their babies , all have to help with the unloading of the day’s catch from the beached fishing boat.

Three Women Knitting by the Sea by Jozef Israels
Three Women Knitting by the Sea by Jozef Israels

In a number of his paintings he liked to connect the wives of the fishermen and the sea, the workplace of their husbands and fathers.   In most it was the about the wife, worried about the safety of her husband, and the prospect of him not returning home safely.   A painting by Jozef Israels with a lighter mood was his work entitled Three Women Knitting by the Sea.  In the background we see a fishingboat at sea ,whilst in the foreground, we have the three ladies happily chatting away as they knit.

On the Dunes by Jozef Israels
On the Dunes by Jozef Israels

In his work On the Dunes we see a familiar depiction of a woman sitting on the dunes looking out to sea.  On her back is her empty basket which, once the boat has landed with its catch, will be filled with fish which she will have to carry back to the village.  Her wait will not be long as on the horizon we catch sight of the returning fishing boat.  The sky is light and the sea is calm and for this day her beloved will return home safely.

Mending the Nets by Jozef Israels
Mending the Nets by Jozef Israels

An insight into the domestic life of a fisherman’s wife can be seen in his painting Mending the Nets.  The scene is the interior of a cottage.  A mother sits before a tiled fireplace mending her husband’s fishing nets whilst her young child sits in a wooden forerunner to today’s baby buggy.  The baby looks over the side at the cat which she  tantalises with a strand of wool.

In my next blog I will look at some more of the paintings by Jozef Israels, in which he depicted peasant life and I will conclude his life story.

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

4 thoughts on “Jozef Israels. Part 1 – The Plight of the Fisherman”

  1. Interesting. I just discovered Israels a couple days ago, and also included that same picture of the Peasant Family in my post, comparing it with Van Gogh’s potato eaters. I was writing about whether or not skill is important in art, and what kind of skill. Anyway, I enjoyed your post and especially appreciate that you included a lot of pics! Looking forward to Part 2.

  2. Thank you for this interesting and informative post. Several years ago I bought what I believe is a beautifully painted reproduction of Israel’s “Awaiting the Fisherman’s Return”. It is very satisfying to learn about its history.

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