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.

The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh

The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh (1885)

In past blogs I have featured Dutch and Flemish paintings depicting jolly peasants as they happily amuse themselves at work or at play.  I can think of many paintings by the likes of the Bruegels, Jan Steen and Adriaen van Ostade which gave us the rosy cheeks of the well-fed peasants and maybe we were lulled into the thought that a peasant’s life wasn’t too bad and maybe one which may have suited us.  Today I am going to feature a painting which looks at the reality of peasant life.  It is a fine example of naturalism in art, which was a type of art that depicts realistic objects and people in their natural settings.  In most cases, naturalism depicts characters in situations over which they have little or no control and where they appear to be at the mercy of powers outside themselves.  Artists who practiced naturalism in their art wanted to ensure that their depictions of life were done with absolute honesty.  Their artwork was to have almost photographic accuracy rather than simply an artist’s interpretation of what was before them.  Naturalist painters often concentrated on the life of the lower working classes and in many works of art we see that the people portrayed have little or no control of their destiny.

My painting today is not from an artist who is famous for his depiction of peasant life, nor is it an artist who is renowned for his somber-coloured works which categorises today’s featured work.  In fact, quite the contrary, today’s artist is known for his bright yellows and blues and the magical swirls of his brush-strokes, none of which can be seen in today’s painting.   Today’s artist is Vincent van Gogh and My Daily Art Display featured work today is entitled The Potato Eaters which he completed in 1885.  This painting by Van Gogh is now looked upon as his first masterpiece and it was his hope that it would establish his status as an artist.

One should remember that as far as art was concerned van Gogh was a late starter.  When he was young, like most children, he would enjoy drawing but he never seriously considered taking up painting as a career.  However, through some of his uncles who were art dealers, Vincent became immersed in the world of art.  However it was not until 1879, when he was almost twenty-seven years old, and living in the village of Cuesmes, in the coal mining district of the Borinage that he became progressively more interested in the people and scenes around him and began to create a pictorial record of his time there and it was around this time that his brother Theo’s encouraged him to take up art in earnest.

A peasant woman by van Gogh

Five years on, at the age of thirty-two, he painted today’s featured picture and this was at a time when he had only just mastered the art of painting.   It makes it all the more amazing that he would take on such a large project so early on in his artistic career.   Just remember what he had to achieve.  He had to paint five figures and make each one look natural and because he had decided the light source was to be central he had the difficult task of achieving the effect such light would have on the room and the figures.

Preliminary sketch for The Potato Eaters

As a prelude to this painting he made many studies of each of the peasants, some in charcoal, and others in oil.

The painting is naturalistic.  It depicts a truthful representation of the peasants and where they live.  It is both realistic and naturalistic.  The peasants are as they are.  This painting highlights the sad reality of a peasant existence.  There has been no exaggeration by the artist in the way he has painted them in order to gain certain effects although it is said that he carefully chose the people to model for his painting so as to illustrate them at their purest and most primitive, as representing the ancient, traditional values of rural life.  Of his choice of models, he wrote to his brother Theo:

“..I’ve tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labour and a meal honestly earned…”

The painting before us depicts a dark room which is only illuminated by the oil lamp which is hanging from the beams of the ceiling.   It is a very dark painting which has been achieved by the artist’s use of murky colours.   The ceiling is low and one imagines that it allows little headroom for the peasants.  It is a tiny space and van Gogh’s use of colour has highlighted its shabbiness.  The murkiness allows us to understand the oppressive nature of their life.     It is not hard to imagine the sort of life the peasants lead in these damp and clammy squalid surroundings.

The whole of the painting is monochromatic, in other words van Gogh has just used shades of a limited number of colours.  The colours he has used are mainly dark and dull such as black and brown and this adds to the morose and moody feel to the painting.   In contrast to the dark room the faces of the peasants sitting around the table are illuminated by the oil lamp and shine out brightly enabling us to explore their emotions.  There is symmetry about the way van Gogh has arranged the people around the table.  A man and a woman sit on either side of the table framing another man and woman who are seated behind the table

The faces of the peasants are sunburnt from the hours they have worked in the fields under the unforgiving sun during the summer months.  Five people sit around a square table eating potatoes; three are men, two are women.      We look at them eating baked potatoes from a potato tray as the woman on the far right of the painting is pouring a black liquid, maybe coffee, from a teapot into the cups on the table.   They are clothed in thick garments to keep the cold out, once the sun has gone down and the wind scurries across the low-lying fields.  Their heads are all covered with either caps or kerchiefs.

Look at the way van Gogh has depicted their facial features.  They have thick lips, protruding cheekbones and low, flat foreheads. Their mouths and cheekbones look almost larger than life.   The male and the female on the left of the painting have bulging eyes and this gives them a look of people lacking intelligence.  Their eyes, in some way, are blank and unseeing and it is difficult to imagine what is going on in their minds.  Look at their faces.  How would you describe their expressions?  To me they are solemn expressions.  The people do not exude an air of happiness or contentment.  Their facial expressions look almost as if they are very wary of each other.  There does not seem to be a close and loving connection between those who are sharing a meal.  There is no sense of communication between the diners.  They are wide-eyed and their thoughts seem to be in a place far from the dingy room.

When we look at this painting we are not seeing the fat ruddy faced peasants of the Bruegels.  These are not the jolly peasants we are used to seeing in paintings such as The Peasant Dance by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (My Daily Art Display, March 27th 2011).  Look carefully at the physical characteristics of the people we see before us.  They have protruding features.  Observe the way Van Gogh has clearly depicted their hands and fingers.  They are gnarled and wizened.  These are coarse working hands and these very fingers will have scratched and dug at the soil to free-up the potatoes they now hold and eat.  This is naturalism at its best.  In this painting, Van Gogh has cleverly and effectively portrayed the poor and harsh lives the peasants had to endure.  Van Gogh defended the way in which he depicted the peasants saying:

“…..if people prefer to see them with a sugar coating, let them. I personally believe that it is better in the long run to paint them vulgar as they are than to give them a conventional charm…”

The artist again defended his depiction of the people in the painting saying that it was a “real peasant painting” and in a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote:

“…I wanted to convey the idea that the people eating potatoes by the light of an oil lamp used the same hands with which they take food from the plate to work the land that they have toiled with their hands – that they have earned their food by honest means. One sees a kind of wild animal, male and female, all over the countryside, black, drab and scorched by the sun, bound to the soil which they dig and work with obstinate resolve; they speak with a single voice, and when they rise to their feet they reveal human faces, and they are indeed human. At night they retreat into caves where they live on black bread, water and roots; they spare others the effort of sowing, tilling and harvesting in order to live, and should therefore not want of the bread they have sown…”

To my mind although this may not be considered as a loving portrayal of peasants, it is probably a true one.  Gone are the smiling ruddy faced people one saw in many of the 16th and 17th century Dutch genre scenes.  There is nothing in this painting to suggest there is much fun in the life of these peasant workers.  A contemporary of van Gogh was the French painter Jean-François Millet, who was one of the founders of the Barbizon School in rural France and he was noted for his scenes of peasant farmers and was part of the naturalism and realism movements in France.  Millet had studied the peasant classes and would often depict them as coarse-looking, uncultivated people who led a feral existence.

Van Gogh defended his portrayal of the peasants insisting that he had never intended to malign them. As far as he was concerned he was simply painting them as typical of country people but maybe this notion should be questioned as a friend of van Gogh asserted that when the artist came to choose his models, he made a point of selecting ‘the ugliest of them’.

Vincent sent the painting to his brother to be exhibited at the Salon but Theo never did put it forward to the Salon juries, nor did he show it to the very influential art dealer of the time, Paul Durand-Rule, as Vincent had hoped.  Later Vincent sent a lithographic version of the painting to his good and close friend, the aristocratic artist, Anthon van Rappard.    Vincent was horrified and angered when he received a letter back from van Rappard, in which he declared the painting “a violence to nature”.  Those harsh words were to end their five year friendship and van Gogh and van Rappard never spoke to each other again.

The Potato Eaters now hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.