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.
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…”
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)
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
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.
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.
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.
Joseph Israels died in Scheveningen in August 1911. aged 87.