The Art of Israels (Extract)

September 28, 2008 11:31
4 minute read.


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Extract from an article in Issue 13, October 13, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A once controversial work by Dutch Jewish artist Jozef Israels has been donated to the Israel Museum Four fisherwomen head to a village fish auction in the early morning light of Holland. They are dirty-faced, barefoot working women, one of them a small girl, dressed in threadbare clothing with empty baskets on their backs. When they return home at dusk, their baskets will be full, their backs bent. This quartet is the subject of the "Fisherwomen of Zandvoort" (1890), a once-controversial painting by Jozef Israels that was donated to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, in August. The life-size painting will form part of an exhibit of works by the Dutch Jewish artist, regarded as an important link between Rembrandt van Rijn and Vincent van Gogh, the two giants of Dutch art. Today, the composition of "Fisherwomen" would seem unremarkable, but when first exhibited in 1890, the work unleashed a torrent of criticism. Even in a European art world that had become accustomed to paintings of the poor and wretched, this harsh depiction outraged critics. For one thing, the large (5ft 8in x 4ft 5in - 172 cm x 136 cm) oil-on-canvas painting places the women squarely in the compositional center, without benefit of trees or any other softening element to distract the viewer from their dire condition. The landscape is bleak, and the colors are muted It is "too big to hide from," explains Shlomit Steinberg, curator of European Art at the Israel Museum, noting that the artist went one step beyond the tenets of 19th-century realism. "Israels chose to forgo the soft focus of his Dutch and French contemporaries. The figures are not high-class matrons at home in the family drawing room, but hard-working women. There is something plain and ugly about them. Israels makes you confront the figures, not peek at them from a safe distance." Nineteenth-century critics feasted on this work for a time, Steinberg remarks. Among other barbs, critics railed against "feet that looked more like gnarled vines than modeled flesh, a smeared sky, scanty, scruffy and over-dramatized," in the words of a 1999 catalogue of an exhibition of Israels' work at the Jewish Historical Museum in Groningen, the Netherlands. But to those who can see beyond those critics' antipathy, there is a majestic quality to this work. The figures are proud, not silently suffering. They stand erect, like Renaissance statues, with their shabby clothes, toga-like in their simplicity. The prominence of the four women forces the viewer to register their dignity, not just the soiled garments or roughened skin. Apparently, all the stinging remarks increased the painting's notoriety and whetted the public's interest, because five years after its creation, it made the rounds of European and U.S. exhibitions, including Amsterdam, Chicago, The Hague, Milan, Munich, Paris, Rome and the Venice biennale of 1895, where it was sold. From there, it passed through several collectors until Guido Bedarida, a Jew from Livorno, on Italy's west coast, purchased the masterpiece in the early 1950s. It made its way in August from that family collection to the Israel Museum. Jozef Israels was born in Groningen in 1824 to middle class, Dutch Jewish parents. The family moved to The Hague not long after Jozef's birth. They were disappointed with their son's choice of profession, having hoped that he would enter the business world. But the young man persevered and studied painting in Amsterdam and Paris. When he returned to The Hague, he launched a career as a painter in the school of realism, depicting scenes of everyday life and portraiture. There are several examples of Jewish-related themes in his art, says Steinberg, such as "Son of the Ancient People," (1889, Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum), where he shows a sympathetic representation of a wretched old man sitting in front of decrepit dwellings - a passing reference to the punishment of the Wandering Jew, who refused to accept the Christian Messiah, a popular method for Jewish artists to evoke pity rather than hate for their people. In an ironic twist of celebrity, "Son of the Ancient People" was very much admired by Christians, who dubbed Israels himself as the "son of the ancient people," according to the Groningen catalogue. Jewish reactions are not recorded until 13 years after the artist's death when an unnamed Dutch Zionist writer questioned in 1924 in a weekly journal, De Vrijdagavond (Friday Evening), "Should we be grateful to Jozef Israels for seeing this old clothing-merchant-cum-rag-and-bone-man as typifying the son of the ancient people? Were we not entitled to expect another, proud, powerful young Jew instead of this hunched-up insignificant, worn-out old man?" There is also Israels' individual portraiture of well-to-do Jewish businessmen, and his most well-known painting, "The Jewish Wedding," created in 1903 and now on loan to the Amsterdam Jewish Museum from the Rijksmuseum, which shows a groom, dressed formally in top hat and tails, putting a ring on the finger of the bride, who is adorned in a white wedding gown. Both are covered by a tallit, which serves as a huppa (wedding canopy). Israels, however, "made his name as a painter of non-Jewish subjects," Steinberg states, unlike the well-developed group of artists in the second half of the 19th century - most notably Moritz Daniel Oppenheim from Germany - who concentrated on documenting every aspect of Jewish ritual life, including circumcisions, bar mitzvahs, Passover exuberance and Yom Kippur restraint. Extract from an article in Issue 13, October 13, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.

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