Meijer de Haan, Gauguin’s Jewish protégé.

The Jewish heritage of Meijer de Haan, artist and Gauguin's protégé, is finally revealed.

De Haan’s ‘Old Man with Tallit’ 2 (photo credit: Courtesy)
De Haan’s ‘Old Man with Tallit’ 2
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Recently, my wife and I were lucky enough to get tickets to see the immensely popular Gauguin portrait exhibition at the National Gallery in London. The National Gallery, with the support of Credit Suisse, has mounted this first-ever exhibition devoted to Gauguin’s portraits featuring more than 50 works brought to London from all over the world. As we entered the impressively curated space, my eye was drawn to a beautifully framed ink drawing of what could have been an Orthodox Jew studying a text. Curiosity got the better of me and I noticed that the subject’s name was Meijer de Haan.
At that moment, I was pretty convinced this portrait was of a Jewish person. I remembered how a Dutch friend explained that in 1815, Napoleonic rule obliged the Jews of Holland and all other citizens to take surnames. Legend has it the Jews decided to make light of the edict and began choosing animal names for their surnames. Names like Schaap (sheep), De Wolf (the wolf), De Leeuw (the lion), and Haas (rabbit) were some examples that are still used today. The name de Haan means ‘the cock’ in English. As if to emphasize the point, Gauguin created a meticulously carved wooden bust of his bearded friend wearing a hat with a cockerel draped around the top. The bust was displayed only a few feet away from the ink drawing in the center of the gallery. With the exception of the ink drawing, at least six of the 50 Gauguin portraits on display depict de Haan in some nuanced way. Not all the images are positive. Some suggest there was something lascivious and menacing about him. One such painting titled “The Bouquet of Flowers” is accompanied by the following comments from the exhibition’s curators:
“Lush and brightly colored, these native blooms suggest a sensuality that is underscored by two sexually intertwined figures decorating the vessel. Gauguin paints a mask-like face (barely visible) looming behind them, with slanting eyes and a curl of hair on its forehead. This grotesque caricature of his old friend Meijer de Haan was possibly included to suggest the threat of Western culture to the Polynesian way of life…”
Gauguin’s wooden sculpture of de Haan with cockerelGauguin’s wooden sculpture of de Haan with cockerel
Most of these works were painted when Gauguin was living in French Polynesia long after he and de Haan parted company. This called for additional research and I decided to look into the history of the 19th century Dutch Jewish artist whose life and works lay unacknowledged and uncelebrated. One hundred and fifteen years after his death in 2010, following an initiative by the Joodse Historisch Museum (Jewish Historical Museum) in Amsterdam, the prestigious Musée d’Orsay in Paris launched an exhibition titled “The Hidden Master,” which was entirely devoted to the works of Meijer de Haan.
A self-portrait by Meijer de Haan, 1889-1891, stolen from the Kunsthal, Rotterdam, in 2012A self-portrait by Meijer de Haan, 1889-1891, stolen from the Kunsthal, Rotterdam, in 2012
He was born in the heart of Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter in April 1852. Like Gauguin, he came from an affluent background. His maternal grandfather was a successful fabric merchant and residential property owner. He hailed from a family of learned Orthodox Jews, who owned a kosher bread and matzah factory where de Haan initially worked. This could explain why Gauguin chose to draw his ‘Jewish-looking’ ink portrait of de Haan.
In 1871 the blonde blue-eyed youngster was exempted from military service. He was 4’11’’ and suffered from “a slight disability,” a humpback he had developed after contracting tuberculosis, an illness that affected him throughout his life. As a child he displayed some considerable talent for drawing. With the financial backing of his family, he took up painting under the tutelage of P.F. Greive, a Dutch painter and lithographer. In 1874, at the age of 22, de Haan was accepted at the National Academy of Fine Arts but illness prevented him from completing his studies. During periods of recovery, he carried on working but remained isolated from the mainstream innovative art movements developing around him. His early works included portraits and paintings of particularly Jewish themes, including “The Talmudic Dispute” 1878, and “Dietary Laws,” also referred to as “Is This Chicken Kosher?” 1880.
Encouraged by Greive, he became a member of the eminent artists’ society Arti et Amicitiae. His membership opened the way for him to exhibit his work at the Paris Salon in 1879 and 1880. For eight years de Haan worked on what he considered to be his magnum opus. The subject of the painting was controversial and involved the Jewish “heretic” Uriel Acosta (a contemporary of Baruch Spinoza), who was condemned by the Dutch rabbis for his ideas on the immortality of the soul. The large historical painting depicting Acosta facing his judges did not go down well with critics, especially those from the “Tachtigers,” a group of Dutch artists who favored the Impressionists. Ironically, the painting got “lost” and only a copied drawing of it remains. The critics’ reaction and the Dutch Jewish community’s disapproval may well have provoked de Haan’s decision to leave Holland.
Accompanied by his pupil, JJ Isaacson, he went to Paris to continue his studies. At first he stayed with Theo van Gogh, the art dealer and brother of Vincent van Gogh. The two became lifelong friends. Theo described de Haan in a letter as a “hunchback, but one without an ounce of malevolence,” stating de Haan was a “biblical Jew inasmuch as he combined all that is human and all the good from both the Old and New Testaments.” Theo introduced de Haan to his brother Vincent and they began to correspond. He also introduced him to Paul Gauguin and the Impressionist (Jacob Abraham) Camille Pissarro, his fellow co-religionist of Spanish-Portuguese descent. It was during this period that de Haan began to expand his artistic repertoire learning much from his Impressionist peers. Meanwhile, Gauguin – who had parted from his Danish wife and left his five children with her in Copenhagen – decided to turn his back on Paris and its bourgeois society. He set off for Pont-Aven in the hope of finding a purer less affected way of life among the rural communities of Brittany. De Haan followed him, first to Pont-Aven, and later to Le Pouldu on the Brittany coast. Undistracted, de Haan devoted himself exclusively to his work. With his generous family stipend, he supported Gauguin financially in exchange for painting “lessons.” They shared accommodation and a studio and became close friends.
De Haan’s work began to reflect Gauguin’s influence and he moved away from the Rembrandt-like dark and light tones to the more impressionistic styles of light and color. Later on, the two moved into the seaside hotel-café Buvette de la Plage where they began to paint prolifically. The walls of the dining area of the hotel-café were covered with their Impressionist murals, which were only papered over in the 1920s. It was there that their relationship began to turn sour. De Haan had an affair with Marie Henry, the owner of the hotel.
There is speculation in the reports from that time that de Haan was being pressured by his family to leave France and return to Holland.
Gauguin wrote: “His family has absolutely no understanding of why he has not remained in their midst […] They think they might pressure him into returning by withholding his allowance.”
Gauguin tried to persuade him to cut himself off from his family and accompany him to his next exotic destination. All of this occurred at a time when news in Europe was spreading about the infamous Dreyfus Affair. Antisemitism was rife and spreading though the newspapers throughout France. Accounts of de Haan’s last years are sketchy but it seems that Marie Henry was pregnant and in October 1890, de Haan decided to leave Le Pouldu. He returned to Amsterdam a few months before Henry gave birth to a daughter, named Ida.
There is no doubt that Gauguin felt some affection for his Jewish friend, but he chose to depict him in his later paintings as some sort of lascivious predator. Perhaps he was disapproving of the way he had treated Henry. There are documents that show that de Haan was in Paris in 1893 at around the same time Gauguin was being feted with a farewell celebration on the eve of his departure for Tahiti. This suggests the two may well have been reconciled.
Not much is known about de Haan’s life after his departure from Le Poldu other than that he was deeply affected by Theo Van Gogh’s death in January 1891. He never saw Henry again but left all of his French paintings to her and her daughter. He spent his last months fighting his illness in a state of “suffering and sickness,” a phrase he used in a letter to Jo Van Gogh, Theo’s widow.
He died on October 23, 1895, aged only 43, and was buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Muiderberg. The Rijksmuseum turned down all attempts for his major work “Uriel Acosta” to be displayed there and all traces of the painting subsequently disappeared. In the 1950s, his daughter Ida tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Rijksmusem to accept his work. De Haan’s French works were finally disposed of in 1959 for derisory prices at the Drouot salesrooms, and distributed throughout a number of French museums and private collections.
His posthumous Jewish legacy was dealt a further blow when, in 1943, his extended family members were deported and murdered at Sobibor. De Haan’s devoted pupil, a Spanish-Portuguese Jew named Baruch Lopes Leão de Laguna, was also murdered at Auschwitz at around the same time.
Because of the Joodse Historisch Museum’s initiative and the subsequent exhibition at the Musée D’Orsay, Meijer de Haan’s reputation has been reclaimed and restored to its rightful place in art history with eight of his paintings owned by the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam. His portrait titled “Old Jewish Woman” hangs in the prestigious Rijksmuseum today and quite recently the Van Gogh museum acquired his portrait of a young girl entitled “Still Life with a Portrait of Mimi.” Several of his other paintings have been acquired by private collectors and respected museums and galleries in Europe.
In a recently broadcast documentary about Paul Gauguin titled “A Dangerous Life,” no mention is made of Meijer de Haan. Camille Pissarro is mentioned but no reference is made to his Jewish heritage. As a Jew living in the 21st century, I believe it is important to acknowledge artists like de Haan and Pissarro and tell their fascinating stories from a Jewish perspective. In de Haan’s case, with this article, the Jewish Hidden Master has finally been revealed.