For another Jewish artist, too, political interests became subsumed into this same, culturally dominant visual idiom, in France and Western Europe in general, of peasant pictures. Such was the case with Jozef Israëls (1824-1911), whose long career in Holland provided a model of success, linked with a lifelong friendship for friendly visits from his coreligionist from Berlin, Max Liebermann (see below). Israëls came from a bourgeois, observant Jewish family in Groningen, a provincial center, and he moved for further training to Amsterdam at the Royal Academy before spending a pair of years in Paris at the Écoles des Beaux-Arts in the mid 1840s. His initial training was as a “history painter,” that dominant ambitious form of “high art” in the early nineteenth century, whose subjects were drawn from bible, myth, or national histories. But with the general shift in the dominant French Salon displays after mid-century, signaled at the head of this essay through the prescient epigram (1857) by the critic Castagnary, Israëls took his personal cue to change artistic direction. He returned to the Dutch heritage he knew well, visualizing in trademark fashion the life of fishermen and peasants near the village of Zandvoort. His principal themes were picturesque but moving scenes of rural poverty and hard work, and he rapidly gained international acclaim, including exhibitions at the French Salon of 1861 as well as the 1862 international London exposition, for one of his breakthrough works, Fishermen Carrying a Drowned Man (1861; London, National Gallery). After working in Amsterdam during the 1860s, Israëls moved permanently to The Hague in 1871, where he became a principal figure in an emerging “school” of artists, including the brothers Maris, Anton Mauve, and Hendrik Willem Mesdag.
Many of Israëls’s mature works are large-scale images in dark tones that evoke traditional Dutch genre interiors of peasant homes as well as the seventeenth-century colors and techniques of Rembrandt or the van Ostades. His favored themes offer melodramatic and emotional scenes, such as deathbeds or isolated old people with pets; a good example is his The Last Breath (1872? Philadelphia Museum of Art). The entire interior is suffused with an atmosphere of spare furnishings and dark shadows; a chair draped with fishing nets suggests the larger world of fishing that preoccupied Israëls. Another favorite subject is the frugal meal in the cottage, often with grace before the meal (a theme also favored by seventeenth-century Dutch painters).
Israëls had considerable influence on later generations of Jewish artists (even such as Eastern European painters as Pilichowski and Hirszenberg, as Richard Cohen has observed), and his works were included in the important early twentieth century exhibitions of Jewish painters, such as Berlin, 1907. In his own later career, Israëls also turned occasionally to more explicitly Jewish figures, usually old ones like his usual peasant types, and scenes from Jewish life, such as the Jewish Scribe (Otterloo, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller) or the Jewish Wedding (1903; Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), where we see the customary use of a tallit (prayer shawl) for a hupah (wedding canopy).
Perhaps most emblematic of this hybrid Jewish genre in Israëls’s oeuvre is his Son of the Ancient Race (1888; New York, Jewish Museum), showing an aged, weary, and humble man, seated at his own threshold. He is identified as a second-hand peddler; his religious tradition is marked by the gold plate and candlesticks visible on a foreground side table. The dark shadows, broad brushwork, and expressive hands and face echo the venerated models of craggy old men by Rembrandt, so often identified as “Jews” in contemporary Rembrandt catalogues. Like Liebermann’s views of the dilapidated, if picturesque Judengasse in Amsterdam, this Israëls picture is a highly conventional, indirect way of connecting to one’s coreligionists, and both artists remained content to provide appealing imagery--from a distance--of distinctly lower classes. The fame of this painting led to its conflation with its artist, who himself afterwards came to be known as “the son of the ancient people.” One critic, Taurel, described it as the emblem of all Jews: “It is a son of that age-old race, whose children dispersed among the peoples like leaves driven along by the storm, but who have not mixed and become one.”
Like Liebermann, Israëls enjoyed the greatest success of any Dutch painter of his era. At the time when Dutch seventeenth-century painting was enjoying renewed popularity among French critics, Israëls was able to ride the same rising tide and to be considered the living heir to his native tradition by such leading French observers as Thoré, noted today as the rediscoverer of Vermeer. Similar praise and comparisons to Rembrandt began to accumulate. Israëls simultaneously not only managed to find inclusion within the prestigious public French Salon displays and in the Paris Universal Exposition of 1878 but also to participate in the “progressive” exhibitions of Secession art as well as Jewish art in Central Europe. Of course, his long-term friendship with Liebermann gave him close contacts in Germany; Israëls showed his art with the group that became the Berlin Secession in 1892, which later awarded him honorary membership, and he became one of their principal early contributors to the international exhibitions in Berlin. Liebermann compared him to both Millet and Rembrandt, and Liebermann’s own Flax Spinners in Laren clearly shows the influence of the older Dutchman on his German colleague. Like Liebermann, Israëls enjoyed considerable honors all over Europe, including the royal order of the Dutch Lion, and he was accorded a state funeral when he died in 1911 (to be buried in the Jewish cemetery in The Hague).
Epitomizing the eventual successes attained by Jewish painters, indeed, by Jewish cultural figures in the broader “artworld” at the turn of the twentieth century, the career of Max Liebermann (1847- 1935) in Berlin provides a climax unlike the struggles by earlier nineteenth century painters. Born to a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin, where his father and uncle maintained a prosperous cotton manufacturing business, Liebermann studied at the Weimar Academy (against the wishes of his father). Indeed, his own bourgeois heritage might well have attuned Max Liebermann to the themes of bourgeois leisure and prosperity, which were then emerging from Impressionist painters in France; however, he also shared contemporary French taste for humbler subjects, notably peasants and rural landscapes. Besides favorite French subjects, Liebermann most notably adopted French forms, characterized by lively and broad broken brushwork as well as the simulation of figures seen in light and air.
Also deriving from his comfortable family background, Liebermann consistently aspired to “success,” whether measured in terms of awards and laurels or in terms of financial rewards, and contemporaries noted his lifelong discipline and industry in pursuit of these goals. Yet he was the founder and the first president (after 1899) of the breakaway Berlin Secession art movement, led by commercial galleries (chiefly the Jewish dealers Paul and Bruno Cassirer) and a local cultural elite in the capital. In fact, this movement, too, was broadly based, opposed chiefly to the conservative art politics of the Kaiser, and led by Liebermann, open to the display and influence of foreign art, such as French or Dutch contemporaries. Indeed, the connections between Liebermann and those countries was forged earlier and deeply: he lived in Paris from 1873-78, and after a first trip to Holland in 1871 he was a regular visitor, particularly to his close friend in The Hague, Jozef Israëls. Indeed, at the opening of the third Secession exhibition, Liebermann championed the work of the Dutch painters Israëls and Jacob Maris alongside Pissarro, Renoir, and Monet. Liebermann, fully identified with the Secession, came to embody international and modern art at the turn of the century for Berlin.
If we follow the highlights of Liebermann’s long and productive career, we find an early and abiding preoccupation with humble scenes and figures. Ramshackle corners of houses or open farm fields, often occupied by figures performing simple chores or crafts, dominate his pictures of the early 1870s. A good example of this interest is Flax Spinners in Laren (1887), a first version of his massive work (Berlin, Nationalgalerie) in dark colors, which depicts collective labor of rural young women and children in their distinctive folk costumes and linen caps. In addition to their general emulation of popular peasant pictures of France, such as those of Millet, these images derive from Liebermann’s first-hand experience of both contemporary Dutch art and rural settings as well as the traditions (including the dark colors) of seventeenth-century Dutch painting traditions, which had also assumed renewed importance for leading French painters and critics in the era of plein-air painting and early Impressionism. Both the large scale of this painting and its local Dutch subject are meant to suggest the massive and active group portraits of militia companies or regent groups, painted by Frans Hals as well as Rembrandt during the “Golden Century” of Dutch painting. However, this painting is not exactly a group portrait, either; it also partakes of the Dutch tradition of “genre painting,” that is, the depiction of scenes from “daily life,” images of labor and leisure in picturesque settings. In so doing, it presents a scene of a “cottage industry,” a throwback to earlier times, where modern industrialization has not been able to supplant either these traditional devices of spinning wheels or the traditional craftspersons’ touch for the production of fiber from flax. Also following upon the thematic tradition of Frans Hals, Liebermann in this early period made a point of depicting ordinary life (rather than Hals’s regents) in the old men’s retirement home as well as the girls’ orphanage of Amsterdam.
During this early period there are also glimmerings of Liebermann’s engagement with his Jewish identity. A small canvas of 1876 picturesquely depicts from a front pew a corner near the bima (pulpit) of the Synagogue in Amsterdam, with a cluster of dark-clad figures in the background. While this smaller synagogue might have carried some resonance for Liebermann in terms of the century of Rembrandt and Spinoza, he manifestly does not choose to paint the grandiose Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam, preferring instead the more modest scale and materials of an Ashkenazic synagogue of the same area.
Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
Defining Jewish Painters in Nineteenth-Century Europe by Larry Silver