Joseph Jacob Isaacson (1859–1942) is remembered in art history more for his written contributions than for his own drawings and paintings. He was the very first critic in the Netherlands to write about Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), and his reviews of other French post-impressionists were exceptionally early as well. The sketches under discussion here were preserved by Theo van Gogh (1857–1891) and are now in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum. Comparative work by Isaacson from this period is not known. An earlier drawing Isaacson made after a photograph shows that he drew with great virtuosity, albeit somewhat stiffly .
Isaacson’s sketches were executed in pen and black ink on low-quality laid paper, and each of these four sheets are drawn on both sides. The rectos (front sides) feature figure studies and portraits, while the versos (reverse sides) consist mainly of fragmentary figures, some of which are partly scratched out, and possibly a city view. The uniform torn edges on one side and dimensions of the first three drawings suggest that they come from a sketchbook that Isaacson took along when he ventured out. In the portraits of Theo van Gogh (d0767) and Meijer de Haan (1852–95) (d0768), he applied cross-hatching to suggest shading and texture in the clothing and hair. However, the drawing of Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) (d0769) lacks this technique and appears simpler.
This variation may indicate a difference in the nature of his relationships with these individuals. Isaacson considered Theo van Gogh and De Haan as friends and equals, while he looked up to the more established impressionist père Pissarro. In these three sketches, Isaacson adeptly captured the distinct appearance and postures of the sitters. Theo’s focused and preoccupied demeanour, perhaps while putting a letter into an envelope, is aptly depicted. De Haan’s pensive expression and recognizable deformed back are striking, and the shape of his face aligns with how he was later portrayed by Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) . Pissarro is shown in a relaxed pose, smoking his pipe and sitting in an armchair. In contrast, the sketch of Theo in profile on the fourth cut-up sheet, with Isaacson’s inscription of the name below it, appears more formal and lacks the depth of character and mood evident in the first three sketches.
On the same sheet as the latter sketch, as well as on the versos of d0768 and d0769, there are a series of somewhat stiff figure studies. On the verso of d0768, most of these figures have been crossed out, leaving only a very sketchy face and a seated child. On the verso of d0769, we see a figure resting his face in his hand, a woman sitting next to a (laundry) basket, a bent leg, two figures in difficult to define poses, and finally a standing figure dressed in what appears to be seventeenth-century clothing. This may be related to the work Isaacson and De Haan did in the Netherlands, which Theo mentioned in a letter to Vincent: apparently, they were painting costumes from Rembrandt’s time. This same standing figure, now with a more distinct hat, is also seen on the recto of d0770, the sheet with the profile of Theo van Gogh, along with two stooping women near a (laundry) basket or tub. On the verso of d0770 are various sketches, likely made in Paris, including a hand lighting a candle, a face in three-quarter profile of an elderly man, two leaning female figures and a figure in profile wearing a large hat. No figure study is found on the verso of d0767, but instead a sketch resembling a typical Dutch city view with heavy clouds hanging low above a bell-gabled house. The sketch possibly pre-dates Isaacson’s departure for Paris and is primarily an exercise in rendering dark and light through cross-hatching.
From The Hague to Paris
Isaacson was born in The Hague as the son of an antiquarian. His artistic journey began after he met the painter Christoffel Bisschop (1828–1904), which led him to enrol in the Hague Academy. Around 1879, Isaacson left for London, where he supported himself by painting and drawing portraits for several months. He then worked with Willem de Zwart (1862–1931) in Hilversum and in 1881 began studying technical drawing at the Polytechnic School in Delft. Isaacson was able to pursue his artistic training thanks to a grant from the philanthropist A. C. Wertheim (1832–1897). Around 1884, he was admitted as a pupil to De Haan’s studio in Valkenburgerstraat in Amsterdam. Along with his master and other students, he showed his work at the Panorama Building on Plantage Middenlaan in Amsterdam in June 1888. Unfortunately, the exhibition received a negative response from the press, prompting De Haan and Isaacson to relocate to Paris in search of new opportunities for their artistic careers. A review in De Amsterdammer newspaper referred to Isaacson as ‘De Haan’s once very promising pupil’ and his work as ‘a thick dark brown mass of paint, from which, with the best will in the world, one cannot make out the representation’. Isaacson and De Haan’s relationship evolved into that of close friends rather than merely a pupil and teacher dynamic. They spent about seven months together in Paris from autumn 1888 to summer 1889. Isaacson took anatomy classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. During this period, De Haan resided with Theo van Gogh. During Isaacson’s frequent visits to them, they would engage in intense discussions about art. Theo enjoyed the conversations with his new friends, noting their ‘unusual clarity of mind […]. Isaacson, especially, strikes me as a real scholar.’
The sketches under discussion most likely originated in this context, probably at Theo’s home on rue Lepic. Thanks to Theo’s contacts, De Haan and Isaacson had the opportunity to meet Pissarro (who, like them, came from a Jewish family) and many avant-garde artists of the younger generation.
First review of Van Gogh
After De Haan’s departure for Brittany in the spring of 1889, Isaacson found himself somewhat adrift in Paris, and struggling financially as his allowance from Wertheim had ceased. He did, however, visit the newlyweds Theo and Jo van Gogh-Bonger (1862–1925) around the same time that Pissarro did. Writing provided Isaacson with a new, temporary purpose and a source of income during this challenging time. In one of his first pieces from August 1889, in which he reflected on the Dutch art on display at the time in the Paris Exposition Universelle, he faulted the work of his compatriots for being insensitive and uniform ‘factory handiwork’, dismissing them as paintings in name only. In this article, he contrasted it with the work of Vincent van Gogh, writing the now famous words: ‘Who interprets for us in shapes and colours the magnificent life, the 19th century, the great life that is becoming conscious again? […] One I know, a solitary pioneer; he stands alone struggling in the great night, his name Vincent, is for posterity.’ In a footnote, Isaacson hinted at his intention to write more about this ‘remarkable hero’. It was the first time Van Gogh had been mentioned in a Dutch art review. Van Gogh struggled to cope with such positive critique, as he also did six months later when Albert Aurier (1865–1892) wrote about him in the French press. Van Gogh asked Isaacson not to write anything about him for the time being. He did not believe his work was worthy of such praise yet, and said he would rather continue painting for another year to better show what he was capable of achieving. Isaacson honoured Van Gogh’s request and refrained from writing extensively about him until after his death.
In 1890, Isaacson returned to the Netherlands and wrote about the ‘neo-impressionists’ (‘néo-impressionisten’) in the journal De Portefeuille: Kunst- en Letterbode. Thanks to this little sketch and the Van Gogh family’s letters, we know that Isaacson had regular contact with Pissarro, although he found Pissarro’s paintings too rigid in execution and therefore lacking feeling. Yet he did consider père Pissarro as a mediator between two revolutionary groups of painters: the ‘dot people’ (‘stippel-maar-raak-menschen’), or pointillists, with Claude Monet (1840–1926) as their leader, in his understanding, and the ‘more emotional’ artists, consisting of Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Emile Bernard (1868–1941), Gauguin, de Lothrijk [Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901)], Van Gogh, Armand Guillaumin (1841–1927), Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) and Odilon Redon (1840–1916). Following Theo’s death in early 1891, Isaacson devoted an article to him, emphasizing Theo’s wholehearted commitment and ability to represent the interests of the artists of his time. According to Isaacson, good art dealers were rare and had to possess both intellectual acumen and artistic empathy, viewing their profession as a true calling.
Eventually Isaacson managed to sustain himself as an artist and received a retrospective exhibition at the Koninklijke Kunstzaal Kleykamp in The Hague on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. The exhibition mainly showcased paintings of Oriental and biblical scenes in bright colours inspired by Isaacson’s travels to Egypt in 1896 and 1905. Although the critics’ responses were not entirely glowing, the exhibition did garner attention, and Isaacson still commanded a certain level of respect for his artistic contributions.