Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Often called “the Dutch Millet” – a reference to the famed French painter Jean-Francois Millet – Jozef Israëls (1824-1911) was the leader of the Hague School of peasant genre painting which flourished in the Netherlands between 1870 and 1890. His importance as an artist lies in part in his ability to blend French Realism and Dutch genre painting, and his oeuvre spanned more than half a century during a period of great significance in the history of modern art. His work was characterized by vivid and inspiring interpretations of the natural world and, an acknowledged master of light and shadow, he famously captured the tones of twilight glimmering in the Dutch sky. He uniquely infused his depictions of common folk, a predominant theme in his work, with an inherent inner dignity notwithstanding the crushing trials and tribulations of their lives.

Israëls portrait.

Considered the artist nearest in spirit to Rembrandt, his use of chiaroscuro – the combination of light and dark – is often compared to Rembrandt’s, whom he venerated, and, like Rembrandt, he often painted the poor residents of the Netherlands’ Jewish ghettos. Many artists held Israëls in great esteem, including particularly Vincent van Gogh, whose weathered visages and meditative and melancholy quality were comparable to Israëls’ images; in a letter discussing his ideal gallery, van Gogh wrote that at one end he would feature a large painting by Israëls.


Israëls maintained a lifetime connection to his Jewish heritage, and he infused some of his most important and poignant paintings with art themes related to his Jewish identity, some of which are discussed in detail below. He evidenced deep familiarity with the lives and struggles of Jewish fishermen, peddlers and lower-class laborers, which he lovingly depicted with great sympathy and devotion. His 1863 marriage to Aleida Schaap (1843-1894), the daughter of a Jewish merchant from Rotterdam, arguably connected him even more closely to his Jewish heritage, and she is believed to have influenced his interest in rendering Jewish subjects.

Born in Groningen, a town in the northern Netherlands, to very religious parents, Israëls studied only the Torah and religious subjects, and his mother, Mathilda Salomon Polack, urged him to pursue a career in the rabbinate. However, both she and his father, Hartog Abraham Israëls, a money changer who intended his son to follow in his steps, were disappointed that Josef, who was drawn to the world of art at a very early age, had different ideas. It was only after a pitched struggle that they permitted Jozef to pursue an artistic career; they apparently got the message when their son would sketch in the margins of the business ledgers while working in his father’s office.

Throughout his life, Israëls honored a promise he had made to his father by never painting on Shabbat. He would tip his local rabbi, who came around every Purim and Rosh Hashana and toward whom he apparently manifested disdain, and he often “spoke to G-d, as in this plea for recognition of his art:

L-rd, oh L-rd, will I return to you once, being a genuine artist. Will all those Art lovers once behold my works with reverence and the laurel of Art then adorn my head… I experience so ardently all the beauty of my noble career… And once again I call to you, it would be much better not to live at all than being disappointed in my feeling…

And there we have my good rabbi… he came up so tired in the studio, and then I put him down here. There was such a real seat in that guy, so with his pants slumped. That’s nice, isn’t it, that long black cloak with those wide folds and that slackly beer mat. He is holding the Torah roll in his arm, do you see?… I have known that old rabbi for a lot of years already, and with Purim and Rosh Hashana he comes faithfully around for his douceur.

Israel’s favorite quote was from his bar mitzvah Torah reading from Exodus 23:20 – “Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on this road, and to bring you to the place which I have prepared” – and, in accordance with instructions in his will, that verse was engraved on his tombstone.

Though his struggle to remain faithful to Judaism while being true to his art remained a source of conflict throughout his life, the Hebrew-speaking Israëls was evidently a Zionist. The sadness, bleakness, and ever-present touch of tragedy in the environment he grew up in near the Amsterdam ghetto may have fueled his interest in Eretz Yisrael as a homeland for the Jewish people. In a famous letter to Nachum Sokolow, he wrote:

You want to bring Jews to the land of Israel? Oh, a very hard thing to do, but lovely. On the life of my soul, a very beautiful thing. If I weren’t an old man, I would go to the land of Israel myself.

He gave a beautiful response to an interview question regarding his understanding of the aims of Zionism:

An original Jewish art can only come into existence when the Jews have their own ground under their feet and live in freedom. Yes, Zionism is a noble thought, but who knows whether they will reach their goal? Herzl visited me, he is a noble man and believes in his idea. But who will know? Now it is our duty to fight against antisemitism, to protest against the injustice and violence that is done to us…

Israel’s reference to Herzl alluded to a memorable visit by the great Zionist luminary who, during a trip to Holland regarding Zionist Bank matters, stopped by the artist’s Hague studio. In an October 1, 1898, diary entry, Herzl characterized him as “a small, strong, wise old Jew” and noted that Israëls was “currently painting David playing the harp before Saul. I explained to him about Zionism and he was carried away; he found the idea enchanting.” (Ironically, in a 1902 interview, Israëls rejected this version of the story, which he said “happened without my knowledge.” However, he made clear that “Zionism I wish all the best.”) Israëls maintained close relationships with many leading Zionists, who regarded him as the archetypal Jew who at once could be held in high esteem in the artistic European world while proudly maintaining a strong closeness to Judaism.

In Son of The Ancient People (1889), one of his most prominent works (discussed below), Israëls depicted the bitter tragedy of Jewry in the lands of European persecution. His student, the eminent Jewish painter Herman Struck, considered the painting to be the most Jewish work of art of all time, and he etched his own version of the work, which was signed by both artists. However, Israëls was always careful to separate his art from his Jewish faith.

Thus, for example, in a 1907 letter, he wrote, “I don’t believe in Jewish art. There are Jewish artists, which means, artists who are born Jewish, but that does not mean that their work is Jewish art.” In an interview, he asked “Is there a difference between a Jewish sea and a non-Jewish sea? What is a Jewish way of painting?” And, in describing Son of the Ancient People, he noted that “a painter paints like a painter and not because he is a Jew.”

Israëls began studying art at the professional level in his hometown before heading to Amsterdam (1842), where he studied at the Academy for Fine Arts, and then to Paris (1845-1847), where he took instruction at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and developed his technique by copying Renaissance and Baroque masterworks. A turning point in his life and career came in 1855 when, recuperating from an illness, he spent time at the fishing village of Zandvoort, became intrigued by the difficult lives he witnessed among the fishermen and their families, and turned to realistic and compassionate portrayals of the Dutch peasantry and fisherfolk.

After his convalescence, Israëls returned to the city streets of his youth, where his artistic consciousness and his intensive knowledge of Jewish life combined to form some of the most sensitive paintings of simple Jewish life ever achieved. In 1871, he moved to The Hague, where he was joined by several other painters who collectively became known as the “Hague School.” Their gloomy and somber use of color consisted mainly of various shades of grey – so much so that they were often called “the Grey School” – and this style influenced much of Israëls’ work thereafter.

Fisherwomen of Zandvoort (1890), exhibited at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Israëls radically departed from his fellow contemporary artists in lovingly portraying common people at work rather than painting the aristocracy and the gentry. His observations of the challenging lives of Dutch fishermen, the plight of the Jewish lower class, and the anxieties and misfortunes of the old and sick in society, which he rendered with great tenderness, affection and humanity, became a dominant theme in his later work and are now considered among his most important paintings. One of his most recognized works, and a classic of this genre, is the Fisherwomen of Zandvoort (1890), part of the Israëls collection at the Israel Museum, which generated great outrage from the European art world at the time because of its stark and honest portrayal of the poor and wretched low-class working women against a bleak and muted background that forced viewers to confront certain uncomfortable societal realities. However, characteristic of his oeuvre, there is a stately quality to the lowly women as they stand with dignity, proud, erect, and unyielding to their daily burdens and obligations, which they bear with grace.

Israëls’ most renowned Jewish masterpieces are The Jewish Wedding and Son of the Ancient Race, discussed below. Several of his works depicting Jewish religious figures and scenes were included in the Fifth Zionist Congress exhibition in Basel, Switzerland (1901), and his Jewish works became artistic icons in the eyes of a Jewish public eager for authentic Jewish art at the start of the twentieth century.

Israëls’ sketch for the Eighth Zionist Congress, published in Haolam.

Exhibited here is a print from the March 28, 1923, issue of Haolam (Berlin) featuring the sketch that Israëls executed for the Eighth Zionist Congress (The Hague, Netherlands, 1907), which depicts Moses’ ascent to the top of Mount Nevo to see Eretz Yisrael but, alas, never to enter it. (See Deuteronomy 34:1-4.) The accompanying article describes how on August 15, 1907, during the Eighth Congress, Mr. and Mrs. Kahn invited various artists to dinner, and it goes on to extol Israëls’ deep love for the Jewish people and his keen participation in its fate and future, a fact broadly recognized by the delegates to the Congress and by the entire Jewish nation.

In The Jewish Wedding (1903), Israëls showcases his ability to capture the essence of a significant Jewish cultural event while simultaneously describing the broader human experience inherent in the traditional rite, and the painting underscores both his artistic skill and his ability to tell a story through his art.


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The central focus of the painting is a groom dressed formally in top hat and tails placing a ring on the finger of the bride, who is adorned in an ornate and richly detailed white wedding gown. With her gaze slightly downcast, she suggests a blend of modesty and anticipation and radiates a mixture of excitement and nervousness. Surrounding the couple are a variety of other characters displaying a broad range of emotional intensity, from joy and excitement to reflection and solemnity. There is a sense of both joyful chaos and intimacy and warmth in the way the characters are positioned close to each other, creating a feeling of unity and shared celebration.

The scene is imbued with a celestial “Rembrandesque” light that is manifest not only in the bridal couple but also particularly in the face of the mesader kiddushin (the officiating rabbi), who is steeped in the glory of actively participating in another step promoting the eternity of the Jewish people. Although it is a contemporary painting, it interestingly depicts an earlier marriage practice of covering the bridal couple with a tallit rather than a chupah. The bride is widely believed to be the artist’s own daughter.

Print of Son of the Ancient People (1889).

Son of the Ancient People (1889) is a poignant scene in which Israëls demonstrates his ability to convey the dignity and humanity of ordinary people, as he empathetically depicts a forlorn shopkeeper in the Amsterdam ghetto, a desolate old bearded Jewish man with deeply lined facial features who sits in his decrepit dwelling looking out through deeply introspective and contemplative eyes. The old Jew’s clothes, which reflect his traditional and cultural background, are textured and detailed, evidencing the artist’s meticulous approach to capturing details of fabric folds and patterns. The lighting of this somber painting is characteristically soft and diffused, and Israëls’ attention to detail is evident in the way he renders the subject’s facial features and the Jew’s weathered hands placed on his lap, which suggest a lifetime of hard work.

The Scribe.

Some art scholars argue that the painting is a reference to the punishment of the Wandering Jew; ironically, the painting was greatly admired by Christians, who dubbed Israëls himself as the “son of the ancient people.” Some Jewish critics question whether Jews should be grateful to Israëls for seeing “this old clothing-merchant-cum-rag-and-bone-man,” a “hunched-up insignificant, worn-out old man” as typifying the Jews of antiquity rather than a proud and powerful young Jew.

Israëls was also highly literate, and his descriptions of his art often were as beautiful as the works themselves. For example, he described a painting of a sofer so evocatively that one can close one’s eyes and almost see the completed canvas:

But I must tell you what I saw… I had entered a dark room, lit by a small, elongated horizontal window… The light cut sharply… and drew itself on the stone floor… There behind the table was sitting the Jewish scribe with his arms forward, leaning on the parchment. He turned his lordly head in my direction… It was a beautiful head, delicate and translucent pale as alabaster, large and small wrinkles were lining along the small eyes and around the big-curved hawk nose. A black cap covered the white skull and a low white-yellow beard lay in large tufts over the written parchment… two crutches lay slantingly on the floor beside him. How much I desired to get my sketchbook out… but in front of the staring gaze of the scribe, I didn’t find the courage to carry out my intention.

Exhibited here are four etchings by Jozef Israëls, each originally signed by the artist. All four originals are on display at the Rijksmuseum, the Dutch national museum.


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Israëls self-portrait.

Israëls generated unusual publicity throughout the art world in 2009 when the executor of the estate of Boris Schatz put a famous Israëls self-portrait up for auction, with the proceeds to go to the Israel Museum. Schatz was the renowned founder of the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem whose art collection, including this particular portrait (which Israëls had given to him in 1909), ultimately formed the nucleus of the Israel Museum. However, when Sotheby’s conducted its usual authentication checks, it found that the Israel Museum already had the identical painting in its collection (although it was not on display) – meaning that one of them had to be a forgery.

After a comprehensive investigation, which included infrared scanning of both paintings, it was ultimately determined that the Israel Museum held the true original and that the Schatz version was a copy. The backstory about how this determination was made would make a terrific film.

When the curators placed the two paintings side by side in a museum restoration lab, they saw the same “Jozef Israëls” signature and the same date (1909); the same gentleman depicted with the same beard, hat and glasses; and the same characteristic brush strokes, including a small red-brown streak near the subject’s nose. The “art detectives” determined that the only possible explanation is that the copy must have been painted by Schatz himself, but they could not understand why the distinguished artist would forge a copy – particularly given that there was no evidence to suggest that he ever attempted to sell the painting during his lifetime.

The mystery began to unravel when the investigators discovered an unusual account recorded in a book by art historian Heinrich Strauss. As Strauss tells the story, Jemal Pasha, an Ottoman military leader and one of the three Pashas that ruled the Ottoman Empire during World War I, visited Bezalel, became enamored with the Israëls self-portrait, and informed Schatz that he would return the next day to appropriate it. Faced with the loss of one of his most valuable and important canvases, Schatz painted an exact copy overnight, but Jemal never reappeared; the British and Allenby evicted the Ottomans from Eretz Yisrael soon after in 1917; and the forgery remained with Schatz’s family.

Israëls has written on his carte-de-visite: “To introduce Madam and Mademoiselle Annie de Young from the Hague-Holland.”

Some art historians and experts challenge this account, maintaining that while Schatz certainly had the skill to pull off the perfect forgery, even he could not have done so overnight. They maintain an alternate scenario in which the painting was the result of an art exercise by Schatz or one of his gifted students. However, the question remained: which portrait was the forgery?

Original untranslated letter handwritten and signed by Israëls. [The author invites any interested readers to translate the letter and forward the translation to him.]
The final determination that the Israel Museum had the true original was made by Ghiora Elon, the senior conservator in charge of oil paintings at the Museum, who established that while the glasses and the hat looked identical when viewed from the front, these objects when viewed from the side did not evidence the same distinct shape and appeared to have been painted by a less accomplished artist. Moreover, he discovered that while the Schatz version was painted on cotton, a cheap material, the museum’s version was done on linen, a material far more likely to have been used by a wealthy painter in Europe, like Israëls, than by someone working in a poor city like Jerusalem, like Schatz.

Israëls achieved honor and recognition during his lifetime, including winning a first-class medal at the 1878 Paris Exhibition and two Grands Prix at the 1889 and 1900 Exposition Universelles, and he was made an Officer of the Legion of Honor. His 80th and 85th birthdays were celebrated as Dutch national holidays, and his work is well represented in museums across the world. He was buried in the old Jewish cemetery in Scheveningen in his beloved Netherlands.


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].