JACOB JOHN SHALE on . . . the arts

Jozef Israëls Fishermen Carrying a Drowned Man 1861. Oil on canvas 129 × 244 cm. Reproduced courtesy of The National Gallery, London

Each month Amsterdam-based writer Jacob John Shale reports on aspects of the arts which originate in, or are connected to, The Netherlands. This month, he writes about Dutch artist Jozef Israëls’ magnificent painting Fishermen Carrying a Drowned Man which is in The National Gallery in London.

July 2023

Fishermen Carrying a Drowned Man by Jozef Israëls

We are told from our early years that drowning is among the most painless ways to die. At the swimming pool closest to my family home, I remember that I would sometimes try to test this claim, seeing how long I could linger at the bottom of the pool before panic set in. The coloured tiles made the water green-tinged, like diluted washing-up liquid. Down there, it was easy to entertain thoughts of shipwrecks and sea-creatures: frivolous fantasies of submarine life. Easy, that is, until your breath gave out and the universe suddenly started to contract, and it was necessary to kick yourself towards the surface and be returned to yelps and screams and laughter and a ceiling that was not a ceiling but an orgiastic chaos of exposed metal pipes.  

This memory comes to me because my last few days have been spent thinking about Jozef Israëls’ painting Fishermen Carrying a Drowned Man (1861). Born in Groningen in 1824, Israëls was one of the most significant painters of the Hague School. He died in Scheveningen on 12th August, 1911.

What I like principally about the painting is how unromantic it is. None of the people carrying the corpse look anguished or alarmed; to judge by their expressions, for them this is not an irregular incident. We cannot see the face of the corpse, but his feet dangle in plain view: bare and wasted and grey. The fishermen are also barefoot; as are the drowned man’s widow and two children, walking with linked hands and stooped posture several paces ahead. Everyone in the painting is attired in the same drab peasant clothing. The very landscape – the darkened dunes, the stony sea, the low sky crammed with dirty clouds – looks to be imbued with an air of destitution, as if it had been designed by some spendthrift deity who has used up all of his brighter and more extravagant colours.

No other forms of death are idealised as drowning is. The immediate and instinctive association is of suicide, which is perhaps why we are so keen to peddle the idea that it is such a peaceful means of checking out – nobody wants to imagine an individual who is already in extreme pain having it added to in their final moments. The obvious reference here would be John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851-52), in which the forenamed character floats down a flower-fringed stream with eyes and mouth open, her skin blazing an immaculate white. Comparing Millais’ painting with Israëls’ makes you realise how dedicated the latter was, during this stage of his career, to a realist style of composition: it is unsurprising to learn that Fishermen Carrying a Drowned Man derives from Israëls’ actual experiences gathered while living in the fishing village of Zaandvoort. By refusing to embroider his subject matter, Israëls allows the viewer to better appreciate the tragedy that lies at the heart of the painting, which is the horrifying ordinariness of what is being depicted. For impoverished Dutch fishermen of the mid-19th century, there must have been nothing strange or spectacular about gazing upon a water-logged corpse; it must have been an end that all of them contemplated for themselves.