19th Century European Paintings

Four Works from Dutch Impressionist Isaac Israels' Travels in Java

By Richard Lowkes
Four paintings by Isaac Israels in our Art of Travel and Exploration sale on 13 December reveal the impressionist's enduring fascination with Indonesia, then known as the Dutch East Indies.

T he son of the Hague School artist Jozef Israels, Isaac Israels emerged as an eminent exponent of Amsterdam Impressionism, and a leading figure among the Tachtigers or Eighties generation, who brought about a renewal of the arts in the Netherlands.

Isaac Israels, Self-portrait (1917), Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
Isaac Israels, Self-portrait (1917), Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Already well-travelled within Europe, in 1921-22 Israels made the five-week-long journey aboard the ship Koningin der Nederlanden to the Far East. In this he was a pioneer among Dutch artists, one of the leading lights of what was known at the end of the 19th Century as the 'School van Mooi Indie', or School of the Beautiful Indies.

Indonesian culture first made its mark on Israels as early as 1898, when he visited the Nationale Tentoonstelling van Vrouwenarbeid (National Exhibition of Women's Work) in The Hague. One fifth of the exhibition was given over to the
'Kampong Insulinde', a replica Indonesian village complete with a bridge over a kali (canal). Visitors could experience batik demonstrations, Javanese and Balinese dance spectacles and gamelan playing, as well as an opportunity to sample Indonesian cuisine.

In 1915-16, Israels was in The Hague and came into contact with Indonesians living in the Netherlands. Under the patronage of the King and Queen, charitable events including dances, music and lectures were organised in March 1916 to benefit victims of flooding in Java. This gave Israels an opportunity to paint Indonesian subjects without leaving the Netherlands. It was there that Israels befriended the Javanese dancer Raden Mas Jodjana (1893-1972), who would sit for him in several paintings. The dancer also helped Israels gain access to the Javanese royal family, allowing him to paint in the court at Surakarta (see below).

Israels finally set sail for Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) in October 1921, staying in the region for nearly a year. His stay was longer than he initially planned, and he travelled widely - visiting the Borobudur Palace, the Kraton at Surakarta, Bali, as well as staying in Batavia itself. In his travels he was often accompanied by fellow artist Jan Veth and his family. With their vibrant palette, the paintings dating from the voyage powerfully convey the impression which the tropical light made on Israels.

A younger generation of Dutch artists would later follow in his footsteps, from Willem Gerard Hofker and Rudolf Bonnet to Gerard Adolfs, while Walter Spies moved to Java the year after Israels left.

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