Despite my voraciously Jewish eye, checking out museums in France’s Brittany for interesting exhibitions wasn’t likely to yield anything of Jewish Interest. “Brittany and Jews” seemed a stretch — maybe like “the elephant and the Jewish problem.”
What I knew of art in Brittany was exemplified in the hard-bitten sensibility of the three unidentified women at the foot of the cross in Paul Gauguin’s “The Yellow Christ” (1889). Their demeanor was emblematic of other Breton paintings by the various artists generally classified with the inexact name of “Pont-Aven painters” — after the picturesque town in Brittany, in and around which they worked in the late 19th century. Although I’d come to love it, the work that they (Gauguin, Emile Bernard, Paul Serusier, Maurice Denis, Emile Schuffenecker and others) created seemed uniformly dour.
That’s why it was definitely a “Who knew?” moment for me to discover that in this seriously Christian Breton aesthetic, I might come across something of such genuine Jewish interest as the 19th-century painter Meijer de Haan. It’s not that I didn’t know the name: De Haan is fairly well known as the subject of several portraits by his friend, Gauguin. A small recent retrospective of his work, however, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, in Quimper, demonstrated that he was also a painter who deserves to be taken seriously by anyone interested in late 19th-century Jewish artists who were part of the art world at large (especially his landsman, Josef Israëls). Organized jointly with Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum and Paris’s Musée d’Orsay (and previously shown at both museums, as well), “A Master Revealed: Meijer de Haan” made a persuasive case for this painter beyond his niche role in Gauguin’s oeuvre.
Despite dying young, at 43, in 1895, de Haan produced a few remarkable works. While information about him is somewhat sketchy, we know that he was the son of a well-to-do Orthodox Jewish family in Amsterdam, where he studied briefly at the Rijksakademie (National Academy of Art) and then spent time in the Amsterdam studio of painter P.F. Greive before working with a small group of local Jewish painters and leaving for Paris in 1888. His early works reflect a strong sensibility that we associate with the great 17th-century Dutch masters — a warm palette and an interest in genre subject matter. In a few exceptional early works, such as “Portrait of a Lady” (1882), de Haan manages to soar: The conventional dress, white shawl and black hat begin to move beyond the conventions of Dutch portraiture into something bordering on subtle abstraction.
In his typical Amsterdam artist’s studio, posthumously recorded in photographs, the artist also created a number of Jewish-themed paintings that work with his dark palette, suggesting an affection for his subject matter that just manages to lift those works beyond the realm of cloying sentimentality. “Talmudic Anatomy” (1880), “Exhausted” (or “Portrait of a Sleeping Rabbi”) and “Criticism” (1880–88) all use a Rembrandtesque sensibility with a warmth that removes them from what otherwise might be caricature. His impressive painting, “Theological Discussion, ” (or “A Difficult Passage in the Talmud”) (1878) — a small group of bearded scholars seated around a table — was submitted to The Paris Salon of 1879 and favorably reviewed.
These dark early paintings and the subsequent radical shift to an entirely different kind of art can be seen in de Haan’s fellow Dutchman (and almost exact contemporary), Vincent Van Gogh, who knew about de Haan’s work through his younger brother, Theo. Indeed, de Haan executed a portrait of Theo, probably during the brief time they lived together in Paris during the winter of 1888–89. There are interesting analogies in the development of both painters’ palettes. Van Gogh’s early work also centers on a presentation of his interest in folkways, which he represented as grim and dark— quite the opposite of the complex bright and colorful works for which he is best known.
In April 1889, de Haan left Paris for Pont-Aven, and Gauguin followed him to Brittany soon after. One of the joys of this important exhibition is in watching the development of de Haan’s paintings from that time forward. There is little attachment to Dutch tradition left in the French-mannered still-life paintings that reflect Henri Fantin-Latour but are much more deeply influenced by the brushwork of Paul Cézanne. In the 1890 works, there are bright flashes in the paintings, which would have seemed inconceivable before that: Brittany, with its light and its rocks and seascapes — perhaps even its exotic language and Celtic heritage — was having its impact.
Given the limited oeuvre that de Haan has left us (42 paintings are currently identified), it’s perhaps an overstatement to place him in the category of “master,” though seeing him as the mere subject of Gauguin’s portraits does him a disservice. Both painters executed the same landscape with houses at Le Pouldu (near Pont-Aven), and each is radical is his own way. Gauguin has drawn out the paint strokes to flatten and abstract the hills and trees to a serene calmness; de Haan has articulated his paint strokes to emphasize the vivacity and energy of the hills, and the odd colors they present. Both artists reflect the influence of Japanese prints, and are preparing our eyes for the brilliance of the Fauve painters — Dérain, Vlaminck and early Matisse.
This first major exhibition of Meijer de Haan’s work is accompanied by an excellently illustrated catalog with a range of essays about the artist, his personal and artistic biography, his teachers and students, and his associates. That the show has not made it across the Atlantic is a major loss for those interested in either Jewish or Pont-Aven artists. Considering the number of works that were on loan from private collections, it’s difficult to believe that collaboration with one of the several important American Jewish museums couldn’t have taken place, and the Gauguin connection might even have given it some of the blockbuster appeal that seems to be the prerequisite for successful exhibitions these days. Another de Haan exhibition is not likely to occur soon.
Finally, there’s an unexpressed leitmotif that hovers somewhere in this exhibition of an artist whom we know primarily because of his depiction by a more famous artist. Exoticism — long an interest of artists, especially in the 19th century — was always lurking within Gauguin’s artistic drives. After his Breton interests waned, he managed to go where none of his fellow painters had gone: to the South Pacific, the source for his gorgeous Tahitian canvases. But is it possible that this sensibility for the exotic may also have drawn him to depict his friend, de Haan?
After all, here was a Jew — an undisguised outsider who lent himself to being viewed as picturesque. Not the de Haan we see in the artist’s two 1889 self-portraits, but the one in two of Gauguin’s several portraits of his friend. The best known is a major canvas from 1889 that integrates a highly structured abstract composition with a face that looks almost demonic. A smaller Gauguin pen-and-ink drawing of de Haan shows him reading a book, wearing the hat that seems to have characterized him and yet also suggests him as a rabbinic scholar — not far from the talmudists de Haan had depicted in Amsterdam a few years earlier. It’s as if Gauguin saw in de Haan both his friend and the Amsterdam milieu out of which the former had arrived in Brittany: art and artist coming full circle.
Tom L. Freudenheim is an art historian and retired museum director.