Jozef Israels Part 2 – The Peasants and his later life

Self portrait by Jozef Israels (1881)
Self portrait by Jozef Israels (1881)

I ended my last blog, which looked at the life of Jozef Israels, around 1856 when he was living in the small fishing town of Zandvoort and spent much of his time sketching and painting scenes involving the local fishing community.

The Day Before Parting by Jozef Israels (c.1862)
The Day Before Parting by Jozef Israels (c.1862)

Israels left the coastal area around 1858 and returned to Amsterdam where he remained until 1870.  In 1860 he completed a work entitled De dag voor het  schieden (The Day before the Parting), which can now be found in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.   It is a beautiful soulful depiction.  It is a depiction of sadness.  But why the sadness?  Is it like the paintings depicting families waiting for their fisherman husbands and fathers to return from the hazards of the sea?  Actually it is not, it is about death.   The setting is the interior of a cottage.  In the dimly lit background there is a coffin which lies across two chairs.  The wooden coffin is covered with a pall and is barely illuminated by a solitary candle.

Light streams into the room from the left and illuminates the two characters featured in the work.   The lighting of the foreground is in stark contrast to the background.  It was the artist’s clever use of chiaroscuro (the strong contrast of light and dark), which in some ways was a contrast between life and death.  In the foreground we have the mother leaning against the chimney breast as she sits on a chair, besides her in the fire hearth lies an empty overturned wicker log basket.  Her face is red from all the tears she has wept.  She leans forward and rests her face on her right hand whilst her left hand clutches hold of a book, probably the bible and her thumb keeps the place of the passage she was reading.  On the floor, at her feet, sits a young girl.  She leans against her mother to get comfort.  Her right hand lies across her mother’s knee.  She stares at the coffin.  Her left hand lies in her lap, grasping the loop of the cord attached to her toy cradle which lies by her side.  This painting is not only a depiction of sorrow it is a depiction of poverty.  The mother and daughter do not wear shoes despite the coldness of the red-tiled floor.  The fireplace, with its blue surround tiles, is empty and so too is the wicker log basket indicating that they have no fuel for the fire.  The large black chain over the fireplace which would hold pots or a kettle for food and drink hangs idly.  Have they food?

This wonderful work of art received the gold medal when it was exhibited in Rotterdam in 1862 and that same year it was shown at the International Exhibition in London.  Israels himself, some forty years later, admitted that this painting made his reputation.  In 1906 he commented on the work:

 “…I painted it in 1860 – I know it was then because it was the year before I was engaged.  It was made ‘pour la gloire’.  It was exhibited in Rotterdam in 1862 and got the Gold medal, the last year the medal was given…………………….There is good colour in that picture; I could do no better – some people say I cannot do now so well…”

Peasant Children by Jozef Israels
Peasant Children by Jozef Israels

 In May 1863 Jozef Israels married Aleida Schaap and the couple had two children, a daughter Mathilde Anna Israëls who was born in February 1864 and a son, Isaac Lazarus in February 1865.  His son became a fine art painter and was associated with the Amsterdam Impressionism movement.  At the time of his son’s birth Jozef Israel wrote about him saying:

 “…With the help of the Lord, he will become a better painter than his father…”

  Jozef Israels moved to The Hague in 1870 and here he began to associate himself with The Hague School of Painters.  This group of artists were active between 1860 and 1890.  For these artists reality was the key to their work, not idealised reality but depicting true reality, warts and all.  The colours used by these artists was often gloomy and sombre and consisted mainly of various tints of grey, so much so they were often termed the Grey School.  This only changed in the latter years of the School with the influence of the Barbizon painters and the early Impressionists who instilled a lighter and brighter palette.

In 1876, with a number of close artistic colleagues, Israels launched the Dutch Drawing Society (watercolours in those days were termed drawings)

The Cottage Madonna by Jozef Israels
The Cottage Madonna by Jozef Israels (1871)

 During his lifetime, Jozef Israels was one of the most famous living Dutch artist and earned the nickname ‘the Dutch Millet.’  The two artists saw in the life of the poor and humble peasants a motive for expressing with peculiar intensity their wide human sympathy.  Millet’s depictions of peasant life were much lighter in tone and were simply a look at peaceful rural life.  For Israels it was different, his depictions of peasant life was very much more sombre and carried a message of hardship and despair.  The French novelist and art critic, Louis Edmond Duranty who was a great supporter of the realist cause said Israels’ depiction of peasant life was painted with gloom and a sense of anguish.

  Jozef Israëls primarily painted scenes from the lives of simple farm labourers or fishermen. Sometimes, as in my next painting, he singled out tragic moments in their lives. This next work of art really tugs at one’s heart strings.  It is entitled Alone and can be found at the Mesdag Museum in The Hague.  Hendrik Mesdag, a contemporary and great friend of Israels, was a leading artist of The Hague School and he and his wife, Sientje played an active role in The Hague art world.  Hendrik Mesdeg was not just an artist, he was an avid art collector.  His collection grew so much that, in 1877, he had a museum built to house it

Alone in the World by Jozef Israels, (1881)
Alone in the World by Jozef Israels, (1881)

The setting for the painting, Alone in the World, is the inside a sparsely furnished bedroom of a peasant’s cottage.   There is an air of bleak despondency about the scene we see before us.  A man sits on the side of a bed.  His bony workman’s hands rest on his knees, his posture is unmoving. He is wracked by sadness as his wife has died despite all he had done for her.  Her body lies in the half-light which streams in from the left of the painting on to the bed and also illuminates the table on which are a pitcher of water and an empty glass as well as the bed.  The greyish colour of the dead woman’s skin makes her almost indistinguishable from that of her bedclothes.

It is interesting to note that Jozef Israels and Sientje Mesdeg talked about this work years after its completion and on a broader aspect of art.  They considered the anecdotal aspect of art and whether genre paintings should tell a tale.  They failed to agree. Sientje was adamant that there was never a need for art to tell a story, whereas Jozef Israels countered saying that a “felt” work is good even if badly delineated.  There is no doubt that this work is a “felt” work as we, the observers, can understand the feelings of the man at a time of his great loss.

Convalescent Mother and Child by Jozef Israels (1871)
Convalescent Mother and Child by Jozef Israels (1871)

A painting I really like which combines the reality of illness and sentimentality is Israels 1871 work entitled Convalescent Mother and Child.  In the painting we see a mother slumped in a chair, head lolled to one side, her knitting lies abandoned in her lap.  Walking towards her is her barefooted young child struggling to carry a small table towards her.  The child is trying to be a help to his sick mother.  Look at the concentrated expression on the child as he makes a great effort to move the table towards her.

A Jewish Wedding by Jozef Israels (1903)
A Jewish Wedding by Jozef Israels (1903)

In later years his paintings were influenced by the works of Rembrandt and this next work of art, entitled The Jewish Wedding, is a fine example of this.  Jozef Israels was a committed orthodox Jew and his mother had once hoped that he would become a Rabbi.  He produced a number of paintings depicting Jewish ceremonies.  Here before us we see bride and groom under the chupa in the ceremony of sanctification of the joining together of the couple in marriage, surrounded by family and wedding guests.  The couple in the painting are depicted in bright sunlight which was a symbol of the happiness of the occasion.

We Grow Old. Jozef Israëls, 1878
We Grow Old. Jozef Israëls, 1878

Joseph Israels died in Scheveningen in August 1911. aged 87.

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.