Jozef Israëls was already a celebrated and popular painter of the Hague School when his son Isaac was born. Isaac’s talent emerged at an early age and it is not surprising that he followed in his father’s footsteps. But he found the traditional painters’ milieu stifling. He moved from The Hague to Amsterdam, and began to paint in a completely different style to his father, indeed he is known as ‘the Dutch impressionist’. That a father and son can be so similar yet so different is the theme of an exhibition entitled Jozef and Isaac Israëls, Father and Son, to be held at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag.
The Israëls family originally came from Groningen. Jozef was born there in 1824 in a family with a great interest in religion and art. His exceptional talent as a painter was obvious from an early age. Although his first successes were historical works, he came to specialise in paintings of fishermen and these were the works that made him world famous. Jozef triumphed in the salons of Brussels and Paris and he became very prosperous, partly due to the business acumen of his wife Aleida.
In 1865 his son Isaac was born. Shortly after the family settled in The Hague. Jozef sent his talented son to the Drawing Academy but he was not a dedicated pupil, preferring to go his own way. From very early on he also wanted to distinguish himself from his father and the sentiments evoked in the paintings that had made the older Israëls so popular. His mother Aleida concluded that her son had lost his mind, expressing her concerns in a letter to her friend Frederik van Eeden, writer and psychologist. His advice was down-to-earth: ‘Do you really think that an outstanding artist like your son will be lost to us if he has to spend some of his youth brooding and searching for a direction in life?’.
That search led Isaac to Amsterdam, where he developed into a painter of modern life, whose fluid brushstrokes earned him the nickname of ‘the Dutch impressionist’. The difference between Isaac and his father is clear not only from the style but also from the choice of subject: no sentimental representations of dramatic emotions, but a swiftly painted realism. It was perhaps Jozef who expressed the difference most clearly when he wrote that his son painted soldiers on their way to the battlefield, while he himself portrayed their weeping widows. But even when the subject is more light-hearted, the father and son can never be confused with each other. While Jozef Israëls painted fisherwomen and their children against the background of Scheveningen’s seashore and dunes, Isaac portrayed elegantly dressed ladies in summer costumes in the city, and later bathers on the Lido in Venice or the fashionable beach of Viareggio.
The exhibition focuses on the development of the two painters. It also shows how despite the differences between Isaac’s style and that of his father, he nevertheless built on the lessons he learned from Jozef. The rooms of the museum are filled with the monumental, emotional works of the father, and the fresh, luminous paintings of the son.
The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue which includes texts by Dieuwertje Dekkers and John Sillevis. The exhibition Jozef and Isaac Israëls, Father and Son, has been assembled by John Sillevis, who has been curator at the Gemeentemuseum for over 35 years. It is his farewell exhibition.