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Jewish 19th-Century ‘Rembrandt’ Still Relevant 200 Years After His Birth

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Jozef Israëls’s works, which were shown at the Fifth Zionist Congress, appear at top Dutch museums, the Metropolitan Museum, Art Institute of Chicago and Philadelphia Museum.

By: Menachem Wecker

More than a century before John Goodman’s character Walter Sobchak announced in the 1998 film “The Big Lebowski” that “I don’t roll on Shabbos,” Dutch painter Jozef Israëls, known as the 19th-century “Jewish Rembrandt,” did not paint on Shabbat.

“Do come to my atelier one of these days, and I will show you my latest creations. But on the Sabbath my studio is closed,” Israëls (1824-1911), who had a strong Jewish education including studying the Talmud, told one visitor. He was said to have promised his dying father that he would observe the Sabbath.

The Jewish painter Jozef Israëls on the beach in 1911 in Scheveningen, the Netherlands, shortly before his death. Source: Wikipedia.

Despite his Orthodox upbringing, Israels didn’t turn in earnest to Jewish subjects until his upper 60s.

His nearly square-sized 1903 painting “Jewish Wedding,” in the collection of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, shows a groom in a top hat placing a ring on a bride’s finger—both of them draped in a tallit.

He depicted a peddler in Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter in his “A Son of the Ancient Race” (c. 1889), one version of which can be found at the Jewish Museum in New York. The subject is “a humble member of his own religion,” the museum notes.

In his 1898 painting “Saul and David,” in the collection of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk, Israels suggested the landscape of Jerusalem in a view in the background between an open curtain, as the future Jewish king plays the harp to calm the incumbent royal.

Abby Schwartz, curatorial consultant and director emerita at the Skirball Museum in Cincinnati, wrote her master’s thesis on Israels.

“One way to describe him is as the 19th-century Rembrandt. He was a master of light, and one of the few artists of his generation to focus on people rather than landscape,” Schwartz told JNS. “His scenes of everyday life were masterful—elevating the mundane to the spiritual.”

Israels was one of the founders of the late 19th-century Hague School, which focused on everyday people and landscapes. After living in Amsterdam and Paris, Israels settled in the Dutch fishing village of Zandvoort, drawn to the sea and fishermen.

“Jozef Israëls” (1860s) by Willem Frederik Vinkenbos, albumen silver print, 1860s. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

“He was learned as a Jew, and his domestic scenes reflect a reverence for traditional women’s work—sewing, mending, spinning, caring for children,” Schwartz said. “I believe his legacy survives as a painter, who was famous in his own time and whose works were widely known in the form of prints of many of his important paintings.”

Schwartz noted that Israels painted several pictures of Jewish scholars studying, including one of a Jewish scribe that she called “deeply evocative.”

“He’s complicated,” she said. “He was careful to describe himself as a Dutch artist, not a Jewish artist.”

Ori Soltes, a Georgetown University professor, author and former director of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, told JNS that artwork by Israels “will always be aesthetically relevant and relevant with regard to his Jewish and other subjects and to the ongoing and delightful complication of defining ‘Jewish art.’”


‘Complex tangle’

By age 16, Israels—who grew up studying the Torah and Talmud—was training in Amsterdam with the portrait painter Jan Kruseman.

“He commented on how Rembrandt’s work enveloped him—in particular, Rembrandt’s Jewish beggars—and he was also drawn to the Judenstraat with its gray-bearded Jews, barrels of fish, piles of fruit and its sky,” said Soltes, referring to “Jew Street.”

“Israels carried localized anecdote to universal human statement,” Soltes said. “He lived among the fishing folk of Zandvoort in the late 1850s, where he became more conscious of nature, of the luminescence of the sky reflecting the sea, of the unadorned drama of life that is intimate with severity, sacred and spiritual in its simplicity.”

Jozef Israëls. “Jewish Scribe” (1902). Oil on canvas. Credit: Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands.

The artist’s peers praised “Son of the Ancient Race”—“not its Judaism, but its humanity, and yet the subject is clearly Jewish and was recognized at the time as such,” Soltes said. “His 1903 ‘Jewish Wedding’ carries a genre subject into the dappled, sketch-like style of Impressionism that pushes us into the 20th century.”

It is possible that “a specifically Jewish sensibility” propelled Israels toward Impressionism and made him tower over his contemporaries in Holland, and “that the works Israels created would not have been what they became without a Jewish element in his consciousness,” Soltes told JNS. “But we cannot be certain of this.”

But he noted that Rembrandt, who was not Jewish, painted many Jewish subjects, including prominent Jews, a “Jewish bride” and Dutch synagogues, two centuries earlier.

“Would we term such works ‘Jewish’—but only in terms of subject and not in terms of the artist’s identity—and would we term Jewish subjects by Israels more ‘Jewish’ because the artist was a Jew?” Soltes said. “What then of his works for which the subject is not Jewish? He leaves us caught in a complex tangle of definitional threads.”


Great ‘rabbi of painting’

The artist’s connection to Zionism was also complicated, as Gilya Gerda Schmidt, professor emerita of religious studies and director emerita of the Judaic studies program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, wrote in a chapter devoted to Israels in her 2003 book, The Art and Artists of the Fifth Zionist Congress, 1901.

Six of Israels’ works were included in the exhibition, which Martin Buber organized, at the 1901 congress in Basel, Switzerland.

In a chapter devoted to Israels, Gerda Schmidt variously refers to the artist as the “great ‘rabbi’ of painting,” the “Altmeister of Dutch art” (old master) and “the Jewish Rembrandt.”

In 1898, Theodor Herzl visited Israels and tried to interest him in the Zionist movement, according to the book. However, according to some scholars, a Zionist publication that stated that Israels had contributed financially to the cause had to issue a correction.

Gerda Schmidt records a memory of Israels’ during a visit to Tangiers in Morocco, during which he entered a home on a whim.

After climbing a staircase, the then septuagenarian artist saw a curtain moving back and forth and froze “indecisively and in thought,” fearing that if he entered a room, he wouldn’t know what would happen next.

“I heard, to my great surprise, a voice ask in Hebrew, ‘Mamevakeshecha?’ (What do you want?),” Israels said. “I entered and said, ‘Shalom Adoni, shalom aleichem. Anochi Yehudi mi eretz Hollandi’ (Hello sir, I am a Jew from Holland).”

Entering the dark room, Israels saw a “long table with crooked legs,” upon which lay a long piece of parchment that hung over both edges. “Behind the table sat the Torah scribe, with both arms on the parchment, and turned his regal countenance towards me,” Israels recalled.

“The head seemed much too large for the body that was hidden behind the long table,” he added. “It was a magnificent face, fine and transparent, pale like alabaster; wrinkles, small and large, surrounded his small eyes and his large, crooked hawk’s nose.”

That sofer, with his “black cap” and “large, yellowish-white beard” that flowed over the parchment, inspired one of Israels’s great paintings, “Jewish Scribe” (1902), in the collection of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo in the Netherlands.


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