Thinking about the natural affinity of the etching plate for the kind of quick loose sketches that one might fairly call Impressionist, which I discussed at the end of the last entry in the context of Jules Jacquemart, my mind turned to the great Dutch realist Jozef Israëls (1824-1911; father and teacher of the painter Isaac Israëls).
Jozef Israëls was born into a Jewish family in Groningen. His parents wanted him to be a rabbi and Israëls had to struggle to realise his dream of becoming an artist. He studied first at the private Minerva Drawing Academy in Groningen under J. J. G. van Wicheren and C. B. Buys, before entering the Amsterdam atelier of the history painter Jan Adam Kruseman. In 1845 Israëls went to Paris, where he studied with Delaroche, Vernet, Pradier, and especially Picot. The influences of first Kruseman and then Picot directed him towards the Romantic tradition of history painting, but although he produced some work in this tradition (debuting at the Salon de Paris in 1855 with Le prince d’Orange s’opposant à l’exécution des décrets du roi d’Espagne), he soon abandoned this style, in favour of the plein-air painting he had encountered at Barbizon in 1846 and 1853, and in Oosterbeek, the Dutch equivalent of Barbizon.
Ferdinand Leenhoff, Les bons camarades
Interpretative etching after Jozef Israëls, 1879
From 1855, Israëls made frequent sketching trips to the little fishing village of Zandevoort. Fishermen became a favourite motif in his art, along with landscapes and scenes of peasant life.
Philip Zilcken, The sleeping child
Interpretative etching after Jozef Israëls, 1888
In 1871 he settled in The Hague, where he remained for the rest of his life. In his day Jozef Israëls enjoyed a huge success, both in Holland and in France. He remains one of the towering figures of the Hague School; the Dutch equivalent of Millet. Vincent van Gogh revered Israëls and Millet equally, often linking their names. In a letter of March 1884 he described them, along with Corot, Daubigny and Dupré, as “the great forerunners”.
Philip Zilcken, A young sempstress
Interpretative etching after Jozef Israëls, 1898
To call Israëls the painter an Impressionist would be absurd. It was the Dutch public’s appreciation of the realist works of artists such as Israëls that left them cold to the new art when Theo van Gogh tried to introduce Impressionism to Holland in 1888. The Dutch found the work “slapdash, ugly, badly painted, badly drawn, badly coloured, altogether miserable.” Vincent wrote to Theo, “that had also been my impression when I first arrived in Paris, my head full of Mauve, Israëls and other accomplished painters.”
Marcellin Desboutin, Les travailleurs de la mer
Interpretative drypoint after Jozef Israëls, 1889
My interpretative drypoint after Israëls’ Les travailleurs de la mer may serve to illustrate the solidity and definition of his work. Even though the drypoint itself is the work of the minor Impressionist Marcellin Desboutin, its brand of realism is recognisably pre-Impressionist.
Jozef Israëls, Enfants sur la plage
Original etching, 1879
But with Israëls’ own etchings, we are suddenly surprised by a lightness of touch that is decidedly Impressionist in its aims and its techniques, with all the details simply indicated by quick fresh lines rather than laboriously delineated. Israëls became interested in etching in 1870, and produced in all 30 plates, which are described and illustrated in the catalogue raisonné by H. J. Hubert, The Etched Work of Jozef Israëls. Israëls treated his etchings rather like sketches, printing them in small numbers to give to friends. They were not usually formally editioned, but occasionally Israëls allowed art revues such as the Gazette des Beaux-Arts or L’Art, to print editions of them. This is the source of my proofs of two delightful etchings by Jozef Israëls, Enfants sur la plage and À Scheveningue.
Jozef Israëls, À Scheveningue
Original etching, 1879
Writing of the etchings of Israëls in L’Art in 1879, the critic Charles Tardieu describes them as a painter’s etchings, and deliberately links them to Impressionism by describing them as “esquisses et impressions”, sketches and impressions. The confidence and rapidity with which Israëls has sketched these scenes onto the etching plate gives a sense of intimacy and immediacy. There is also a real tenderness in his depiction of the bathing children and the resting fisherwoman. To my mind these simple etchings rank high in the art of Jozef Israëls, marrying the plein-air philosophy of the Barbizon and Hague Schools with the freshness and freedom of the Impressionists.