Jozef Israels - A Heart's Desire

Curator: Sorin Heller

Preface (from the exhibition catalogue): Ofra Rimon, museum curator and director

The title of the present exhibition dedicated to Jozef Israels’s paintings, “Jozef Israels: A Heart’s Desire,” takes us some dozen years back in time, to an event I witnessed, when the late Dr. Reuben Hecht approached the Museum’s Art Curator at the time, asking him to organize an exhibition dedicated to Jozef Israels. Even after his passing in April 1993, Dr. Hecht’s wish continued to haunt me. When Mr. Sorin Heller agreed to curate an exhibition devoted to Israels's work at the Hecht Museum, I was delighted – we were finally going to fulfill the wish of the Museum's founder.
Ever since the above-mentioned event, I had the feeling that for Reuben Hecht this was more than a mere request: it was indeed his heart's desire. In a conversation with Ms. Rivka Weiss-Blok, whose essay appears in this catalogue, it became clear to me that my hunch was not unfounded. Ms. Weiss-Blok, former Curator of European Art at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, was also the Director of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, where she curated a large-scale exhibition dedicated to Israels’s oeuvre in 1999. As part of her research on the artist, she learned about the great significance ascribed to him by the leaders of the Zionist Movement, who regarded him as a model of the Jew who could succeed as an artist and gain an international reputation in his field. Herzl, the leader of the Zionist Movement, even met Israels in the latter’s studio in The Hague when he visited Holland in 1899 in connection with matters of the Zionist Bank. Herzl wrote about the encounter in his diary: “Kahn, whom I called upon in connection with the bank, took me yesterday to visit painter Israels, a small, strong, wise old Jew. He is currently painting David playing the harp before Saul. I explained to him about Zionism and he was carried away; he found the idea enchanting.” (Theodor Herzl, Tagebücher II, Berlin, 1923, p. 129).
The special value attributed to Israels by Zionist Judaism was heightened in light of the fact that in his last years his preoccupation with Jewish themes increased, as exemplified by the painting, "The Son of the Ancient People." It is interesting to note that Hermann Struck, who worked with Israels, made an etching of that piece, a print of which is found in the Hecht Museum Collection and is also signed by Israels.
Wholeheartedly devoted to the Zionist idea, Reuben Hecht often expressed his great admiration for Herzl. One of these occasions was in the context of a temporary exhibition in the Museum’s Art Wing when Hermann Struck’s etchings portraying Herzl were taken off the walls in order to make room for the new show. On the opening night Dr. Hecht entered the Art Wing, observed the works on display, and turned to me, asking “Where is Herzl?” I explained that the etchings were placed in storage for the duration of the temporary exhibition. Dr. Hecht seemed displeased and said: “It is a mistake to remove the works depicting Herzl from the permanent display! It is thanks to him that we have this country!” On another occasion I presented Dr. Hecht with a framed photograph of him in the company of children, which I took on one of his visits to the Museum. I suggested that he hang it on the wall of his office. He looked at the photograph with marked pleasure and then said: “The only thing hanging on the walls of my office is Herzl’s portrait!”
Dr. Reuben Hecht regarded not only the archaeology collection, but also the art collection as a means to link Herzl and the Zionist idea. He even put this view in writing in an essay entitled “Notes about Camille Jacob Pissaro, One of the Fathers of Impressionism,” in an internal pamphlet published at Dagon in the Spring of 1960:
“Both movements are turning points: Zionism – in its global historical sense, and Impressionism – as the first modern art movement. Together they form the end of one era and the beginning of a new one, and nevertheless, they are both rooted in tradition and in the past, and lead toward the future… Herzl’s words equally apply to Pissaro, Monet and the Impressionists: ‘There will always be a heart’s desire in works of art, and perhaps art as a whole is but a heart’s desire being shaped. It creates the intangible, and this is the only thing worthy of yearning. '"
Herzl’s appreciation for Israels’s work undoubtedly affected the ardent Zionist, art collector Dr. Reuben Hecht. In addition, due to his Belgian roots, he must have felt close to the art and painting tradition manifested in Israels’s work. Indeed, a large part of the Museum's Art Collection focuses on the work of Jewish painters from the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and among these the relatively large number of works by Israels is conspicuous. One can learn about the purchase of one of these pieces, "Sabbath Eve," from a speech delivered by Dr. Hecht at the inauguration of the Museum's Art Wing on January 11, 1989:
“One day, as I was strolling from one boutique to another at Quai de la Seine in search of second-hand drawings and books, I noticed a creased sheet of paper with an already yellowed passe-partout. I was captivated by its atmosphere and decided to buy it. I remember the price was five francs, approximately half a dollar at the time. Back at the hotel I removed the passe-partout and discovered the clear and typical signature of Jozef Israels. Under better lighting, a scene was revealed – a Sephardic family seated around a lamp on Friday eve.”
Dr. Hecht did not live to see his dream realized, and yet the exhibition, "Jozef Israels: A Heart's Desire," is a fulfillment of his heart's desire regarding the work of this artist and all that it symbolized for him.
We would like to thank the exhibition curator, Mr. Sorin Heller, and the scholars who contributed the fruits of their studies to this catalogue – Ms. Rivka Weiss-Blok and Dr. Jochai Rosen of the University of Haifa.
We extend our thanks to all the museums that have lent works from their collections and to their curators: to the Israel Museum, to Chief Curator of the Arts and Director of Collections Suzanne Landau, to Hans Dichand Curator of European Art Shlomit Steinberg, to Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings Meira Perry-Lehmann, and to Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings Ronnit Sorek; to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, to Director and Chief Curator Prof. Mordechai Omer, and to Curator of 16th-19th Century Art and Chief Conservator Dr. Doron J. Lurie; to the Herzliya Museum of Art and Director Dalia Levin; to the Haifa Museum of Art and to Director Nisim Tal; to the Mishkan Le'Omanut Museum of Art, Ein Harod, to Director Galia Bar-Or, and to Registrar Ayala Oppenhaimer.
The exhibition, "Jozef Israels – A Heart's Desire," offers the Israeli public a selection of works by the Dutch Jewish artist, Jozef Israels, from state museum collections in Israel. Jozef Israels (1824, Groningen – 1911, The Hague) was one of the most prominent Dutch painters in the late nineteenth century. His oeuvre spans more than fifty years, from the mid-nineteenth century through the first decade of the twentieth century. A period of great significance in the history of modern art, it was marked by the avant-gardists’ rebellion against the academic tradition. Israels took his first steps in art as the Realist trend fought for recognition and a foothold in France. By the end of his artistic career, the movements that would change the face of art in the twentieth century were already well established: Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Fauvism; even Cubism at the time was already past its peak.
In retrospect, one may characterize Israels's art as a fusion of two aforementioned approaches: on the one hand, adherence to the aspect, to subject matter, is the keynote of his work; on the other hand, Israels's significance as an artist lies in his ability to blend French Realism and Dutch Genre Painting. "Israels's paintings derive from true thought more than from true practice," was how Liebermann referred to his teacher and friend.
The paintings were successful not only in Holland and Belgium, but also in the Parisian Salons. Israels also found markets in Germany (Paul Cassirer was his agent in Berlin), Scotland, and the United States, and even exhibited works at the first Venice Biennale.