Descended from a poor Jewish family, Jozef Israëls started taking drawing lessons in 1835 at the Academy Minerva in Groningen. In 1842 he studied in Amsterdam with Jan Adam Kruseman (1804-1862) and took lessons at the Royal Academy with Jan Willem Pieneman (1779-1853). Deeply moved by Scheffer's (q.v.) Gretchen,1 he went to Paris in 1845, working assiduously by entering the studio of François-Édouard Picot (1786-1868), copying Old Masters in the Louvre, and taking classes at the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1847 he returned to Amsterdam, and his Ophelia (1850, Dordrechts Museum), much indebted to Scheffer, established his reputation. In 1853 Israëls returned to Paris, finally met Scheffer, and visited Barbizon. Two years later, suffering from bad health, Israëls spent seven weeks in the coastal village of Zandvoort living in a carpenter's cabin. The life of the poor fishing community with which he became so familiar developed into the major theme in his art. The success of his Passing Mother's Grave (1856, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam), a large work addressing the fateful life of a fisherman widower and his two children, encouraged the artist to abandon history painting. After a tremendously successful showing of Fishermen Carrying a Drowned Man (1861, National Gallery, London) at the 1861 Paris Salon and the 1862 London International Exhibition, his reputation was firmly established abroad. With the grandiose treatment that he applied to these works, Israëls introduced into Dutch art a realist style in emulation of Courbet (q.v.). In 1863 he married Aleida Schaap, with whom he had a daughter, Mathilde Anna, and a son, Isaac, who would also become an established painter. In The Hague, where he moved in 1871, he eventually built a large studio where his models posed in his "fisherman's corner." Israëls was one of the leading members of De Haagse School (The Hague School), which included such artists as Johannes Bosboom (1817-1891), Jacob (1837-1899) and Matthijs (1839-1917) Maris, Anton Mauve (1838-1888), Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831-1915), and Jan Hendrik Weissenbruch (1824-1903). In addition to fishermen scenes and portraits, he expanded his subject matter with peasant scenes, and later in his career he returned to the subject of death and old age, as well as treating Jewish and biblical themes. He traveled extensively and was much honored at home and abroad. Israëls was the most acclaimed Dutch painter in his time, eagerly sought after by collectors in Great Britain, the United States, and other countries. Hailed as a second Rembrandt, he participated in many exhibitions, and his work was disseminated through reproductions. In 1910 he was honored with an exhibition at the Venice Biennale. He died one year later in Scheveningen and received a state funeral.
1. It might be the version in a private collection in Paris; see Leo Ewals, Ary Scheffer 1795-1858. Gevierd Romanticus, exh. cat., Dordrechts Museum (1995-96), no. 32 (repr.).