BREITNER vs ISRAELS at The Hague’s Kunst Museum

If this sounds like a boxing match, you’re right. The new exhibition at The Hague’s  Kunstmuseum is about two rivals in art. In the exhibition’s first room, two large photos and 2 sets of boxing gloves welcome visitors.

In over five ’rounds’, this exhibition shows visitors how Dutch painters George Hendrik Breitner (1857-1923) and Isaac Israels (1865-1934) influenced, inspired and irked each other. Relations between the two men were complicated, with their inner demons coming out.

Breitner, born in Rotterdam, met Israels at The Hague’s Art Academy in 1876. Israels was the son of the famous painter Jozef Israels and ‘the crown prince of Dutch painting’. Aged 16, his painting Bugle Practice was sold even before he had finished it.

Breitner, on the other hand, was nearly a decade older. He came from a far less promising background. Both men became friends, secretly admired each others different styles, worried about their own weaknesses and were jealous of each others talents.

What did not help: at the start of their careers both painted related themes. At first military ones. While Breitner had to cope with insecurity and self-doubt; Israels had to deal with being a talented ‘crown prince’ of whom much was expected. In 1882, his father’s fame and connections ensured Israels’ Military Burial was exhibited at the Paris Salon, but it did not win first prize.

The exhibition follows the various steps in this developing friendship and rivalry chronologically. Breitner befriends van Gogh, when the latter moves to The Hague. They share an interest in painting working class people and slums. While Breitner is shunned by upper-class clients, Israels paints wealthy clients’ portraits.

Around 1886, Breitner and Israels are living in Amsterdam, apparently even renting studios at the same address. When Israels comes across one of Breitner’s works, it bowls him over and causes a kind of painter’s block: he can’t produce anything for a while: knock-out! 

Again: what does not help is that both join a group of progressive writers and artists, the “Tachtigers”. Very soon, Israels and Breitner seem to start painting similar scenes in related styles. Worse: the friends have a major fall-out.

Don’t forget to visit the smaller exhibition spaces! In one of them, two different approaches are illustrated. Breitner turned to new inventions like the camera to help him create paintings, while Israels continued to sketch. As mentioned at the start of this exhibition, this likely not only had to do with Breitner being interested in photography – but also in his idea he was less talented in sketching.

Towards the end of this exhibition, the men meet years later and patch up their friendship. They each have found their niche and have become more assured of their considerable talents. Israels starts to use lighter, sunnier colours and also paints upper-class scenes like Riding Donkeys on the Beach. Breitner on the other hand, has finished painting his now famous series of Kimono-girls and returned to painting street scenes and people hard at work in his muted, gray tones.   Kate    6th February 2020

Breitner vs Israels continues until 10th May 2020.

Image courtesy Kunstmuseum, details of works in this exhibition. Left: one of Breitner’s Kimono Girls; right Israels’ Two girls on the Lijnbaangsgracht, Amsterdam.