- From Zandvoort to Tangier: The Artistic and Religious Identities of Jozef Israëls
In 1908, Jozef Israëls (1824–1911), the well known Dutch artist and prominent member of the Hague School, painted a series of self-portraits. Blurry but recognizable to anyone familiar with Israëls’ work, his earlier Biblical painting David and Saul served as the backdrop for the artist’s depictions of himself (Figure 1). In the piece, the elderly painter stands respectfully in the gap between the lounging figure of King Saul on the left and a youthful David playing the harp on the right. Israëls’ gentlemanly demeanor is reinforced by respectable attire - a black suit, spectacles, and a gold watch chain. In terms of color and composition, his figure at eighty-four blends in harmoniously with the Biblical scene behind him. The muted colors of both the ancient scene and of Israëls’ contemporary figure create a bridge between past and present. Centered between one ancient King and the young man soon to replace him, Israëls appeared to self-consciously link himself with this celebrated Biblical past. Upon closer examination, however, Israëls advocated association rather than continuity between himself and the two powerful Israelite kings. Decidedly modern in appearance, this European of the early twentieth century had little in common with the ancient figures behind him. Israëls understood himself to be not, as his acquaintance Frank Gunsaulus wrote, a relic of the ancient past but rather a Dutch Jew.1
Israëls’ pose before David and Saul illustrates three important and intersecting aspects of his identity: profession, religious confession, and more subtly but just as crucially, identification with European and specifically Dutch culture. The following explores the complex interaction between these oftentimes conflicting aspects of his identity. After providing a brief sketch of his life, I examine Israëls’ artistic work, particularly those paintings with Jewish themes or subjects. Since Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age, the painting of self-portraits has had important echoes in the Dutch context. I argue that his portraits and other paintings are best understood in the larger context of nineteenth century Dutch realism and the Hague School’s desire to conjure up the artistic greatness of the seventeenth century. This goes against the attempt of some scholars and many of Israëls’ contemporaries to bring him into the fold of the burgeoning Jewish art movement in the 1890s. The supposed [End Page 67] conversion of Israëls to Zionism by none other than Theodor Herzl is not supported by evidence from Israëls’ life or artistic work.
What is evident, however, is that Judaism played a large role in Israëls’ public persona. From various interviews and other sources, we can see that his status as a religious Jew did not conflict with Israëls’ project to create himself into an esteemed public figure. This process that Richard Cohen describes as “depoliticizing religious attachment” was visible across Western and Central Europe but particularly advanced in the Dutch context. 2 In addition to the body of Israëls’ artistic work, another significant source is his 1899 memoir Spain: The Story of a Journey. Analysis of certain sections of Israëls’ memoir, particularly one meeting with a Jewish scribe in Morocco, illustrates some of these larger points about Israëls’ dual identity as a Dutchman and a Jew.3
Israëls’ Life and Painting
Born in 1824 in Groningen, a mid-sized city in the north of Holland, Jozef Israëls grew up in an observant Jewish family.4 His father, Hartog Abraham Israëls, was a stockbroker, although no evidence exists that Israëls ever felt any pressure to follow in his father’s footsteps. From a young age, he and his nine siblings were encouraged to pursue artistic and religious study.5 At one point, Israëls even considered becoming a rabbi and studied Hebrew and Talmudic literature in preparation.6 Up until the age of fifteen, he attended a local Talmud Torah where he received the bulk of his religious instruction. It is also likely that he at some point had a private tutor in Hebrew. Israëls’ personal identification with...