As the son of the renowned nestor of the Hague School, Jozef Israëls, Isaac Israels had for many years been searching for his own style of painting before discovering it around 1890: he would be remembered as the Dutch impressionist who was equal to most of his French contemporaries. In 1887 he moved from The Hague to Amsterdam, where he was quickly accepted by the circle of the Eighties Movement ('de Tachtigers'), a group of likeminded, progressive artists and writers. Together with one of his new friends, the essayist Frans Erens (1857-1935), he became acquainted with the artistic currents of his time as well as with several French celebrities in Paris in 1889. Following the death of his mother in 1894 he travelled to Spain and North-Africa in the company of his father and Frans Erens. Back in Amsterdam in October of the same year, he was granted a license to place his easel on the streets in order to study the busy city life en plein air. During the summer months of the following years, from 1895 until 1902, he would also sketch and paint outdoors at the seaside resort of Scheveningen near The Hague with his father and the well-known German painter Max Liebermann (1847-1935). The three of them usually stayed in a villa that belonged to the Oranjehotel, which was placed at Jozef Israëls' disposal by one of his admirers.
While Jozef had been gaining popularity as a painter of the difficult and insecure existence of fishermen and their families, Isaac was inspired by the fashionable life of the boulevards and beaches in Scheveningen. He portrayed female bathers and had models pose for him, but his favourite theme (and that of his clients) was the colourful, lively depiction of elegantly dressed girls on donkey-rides accompanied by a young donkey driver. A number of variations on this theme are known; the girls are always seated askew on the donkey, dressed in attractive white or pastel-coloured summer dresses, wearing straw hats. In most cases, the donkey driver follows barefooted behind the donkeys dressed in a blue tunic with a cap on his head and a stick or whip in one of his hands. Less common are the versions where the boy walks in front of the group or is also riding a donkey.
The best-known example of this subject can be found in the collection of the Rijksmuseum (fig. 2). It is considered an icon of the bequest left by the couple Drucker-Fraser, who had bought the painting directly from the artist. The present lot is a similarly monumental work and its existence was not widely known and comes as a surprise within the genre. It is distinguished from all the other known donkey ride-paintings by its remarkable size. The composition is almost identical to the painting in the Rijksmuseum. It is painted with the same fluent brushstroke and transparency, yet its tone is a little more delicate. The most important difference is that different girls are portrayed, all three with dark blonde or brown hair, whereas on the version of the Rijksmuseum three blonde girls are pictured. These blonde girls are identified by name (see W. Loos and G. Jansen, Breitner and his Age. Paintings from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, 1880-1890, Amsterdam, 1995, no. 14), which supports the idea that the girls in this painting are not just passers-by either, but potentially identifiable.
An interesting fact is that the present lot can be seen on a photograph taken on the fourth of March 1903, which shows the artist in his studio at Oosterpark 82 (the 'Witsenhuis') in Amsterdam, seated between a multitude of finished and unfinished paintings (fig. 3). On the floor on the left, slightly covered by the large figure painting on the easel and a smaller canvas, the present lot is visible. The exceptional size of the present lot within the donkey-ride series is emphasised again by a much smaller canvas with the same subject which can be seen in the photograph above the large painting on the left.
The present lot (still unframed in the photograph) differs slightly from the final version -most noticably in the pose of the donkey driver- which indicates that Israels made some adjustments before it reached its first owner. That first buyer, the Amsterdam businessman and collector Eduard van Dam (1885-1918), probably bought the painting directly from the artist. Eduard van Dam started collecting works by the masters of the Hague School, the Eighties Movement and early works by modern artist such as Piet Mondriaan and Jan Sluyters at a young age. In a relatively short period of time he brought together a large art collection. Van Dam unfortunately died relatively young due to the influenza pandemic at the time, known as the Spanish Flu. In a photograph of Van Dam's impressive interior at the Westeinde in Amsterdam, the present lot figures in a prominent place on the wall, surrounded by works by Israels' contemporaries (fig. 1). In 1929 the entire collection was offered at auction, where descendants of the original owner acquired the present lot.
We are grateful to Drs Wiepke Loos for writing the catalogue entry.