In The Hague, students from the Dutch East-Indies and the Indonesian dancer, Raden Mas Jodjana, would pose for Israels. He went on to painting more Indonesian subjects after his voyage to the Dutch East Indies in 1921. The present lot, Two Javanese Ladies (dated circa. 1920s), was likely painted after this life-changing voyage.
With its understated charm, the present lot has had a prolific exhibition history, cementing Israels’ finesse and position as a recognized maestro in both Europe and Southeast Asia. In 1930, Two Javanese Ladies was exhibited in Arti & Amicitiae, the Dutch artists’ society that was instrumental in developing the visual arts scene in the Netherlands. It was subsequently presented in Gallery Wiegserma’s spring exhibition of 1972, and displayed in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, the principal national museum of Holland, within the same year. Most recently, in 2005, the piece was exhibited at The Mesdag Collective and continues to draw audiences for its quiet and delightful appeal.
The principal focus of Two Javanese Ladies is on the woman in the foreground, whose upper body takes up majority of the pictorial space. She squarely faces the front, captivating the viewer with her piercing stare. Her peaceful face emanates a quiet, yet assured confidence, an effect that Israels often endows his female sitters.In the left background, the other Javanese woman, somewhat obscured by darker and muted hues, casts a sideward glance, raising her eyebrows almost inquisitively. In contrast to her companion, her attire is simply rendered in broad brushstrokes while her thoughtful expression suggests a narrative in this otherwise portrait composition. A talented communicator, Israels thus captures a curious moment that is at once charismatic and sweet.
The women tie their hair up in sanggul, a traditional Javanese hairstyle, and are clad in kebaya, the traditional women’s blouse. One may deduce that the lady in the front is an aristocrat, as she appears to be wearing kebaya kartini, a variation donned by Indonesian high society. In Java, Israels gained access to the noble Javanese court and was favoured amongst its members and their families. The artist draws our attention the necklace hanging delicately around the woman’s neck that would have signalled her noble bearing.
The pastel pinks and cream blouses, as well as the greyish-brown background capture Israels’ signature use of neutral tones, harkening back to the tendencies of the The Hague School of painting. Yet, this subdued palette is animated by the artist’s dynamic handling of paint as he did not blend his strokes smoothly, but instead left them to bear his confident impressions upon the canvas. In 1898 a critic described the firmness and decisiveness of Israels’ brush strokes—‘he repeatedly stabs, as with a dagger, at the canvas: punches as if suddenly inspired, immediately executed, interrupted by waiting for inspiration’. This broad brushwork is juxtaposed against the more detailed renderings of the women’s facial features while is cast in a gentle light.
Extensively exhibited since the 1930s, Two Javanese Women is a lovely and recognized painting of technical sophistication and undeniable charm. Moreover, the artist opens a window into an intimate space as he portrays his sitters in a way that confronts the conventional subject-viewer relationship. The women’s gazes reveal their self-awareness while capturing their elegant features with the utmost delicacy, thus demonstrating the strengths of a true Indo-European maestro.
 Dolf Welling, Isaac Israels: The Sunny World of a Hague Cosmopolitan, Van Voorst van Beest Gallery, The Hague, The Netherlands, 1991
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