At around 0300 on 16 October 2012, thieves broke into the Kunsthal in Rotterdam and made off with a small haul of modern masters. A couple of Monet’s paintings of London, one each by Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, and Lucian Freud. The fate of those paintings remains unknown, although the mother of one of those arrested for the crime initially claimed that she had burned them all to destroy the evidence.
The seventh of the works which were apparently destroyed was the least valuable but most precious: it was one of only two known self-portraits of the Dutch Nabi, Meijer Isaäc de Haan (1852–1895), very few of whose paintings are now known.
De Haan is the last of my series of Nabi painters, whose work was almost unheard of until the Musée d’Orsay gathered his surviving work in an exhibition in 2010. The loss of his self-portrait was just another tragedy in a long succession of events which have conspired to condemn de Haan to oblivion.
De Haan was born in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, in 1852. His family were prosperous if not downright rich, owning property and various businesses. Between 1867-72, he was taught to draw and paint by Petrus Franciscus Greive, who specialised in painting fishing scenes. However, during his youth he appears to have contracted tuberculosis which, as it commonly did, affected his spine and hunched his back. As a result, he was less than five feet (only 59 inches, 1.49 metres) tall, which at least exempted him from military service.
I suspect that this portrait of his first teacher Petrus Franciscus Greive (1811-1872) was painted around the time of Greive’s death, and is one of de Haan’s earliest surviving works, together with a still life or two.
De Haan started studies at the National Academy of Fine Art in Amsterdam in 1874, but after only a few months there he fell ill, and was confined to his home. His family also enjoyed mixed fortunes: his oldest brother started a bakery which quickly became highly profitable, but his mother died in 1875. De Haan continued painting, becoming involved in a distinguished society of artists. He first exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1879.
De Haan exhibited a second time at the Salon the following year, I suspect with this wonderful portrait of an Old Jewish Woman (1880). However, she is more typical of Rembrandt’s time than the late nineteenth century.
Inspired by this success, de Haan started early work on what he envisaged would be his masterwork. This was to show Uriël Acosta, a Jew who was condemned for his ideas on the immortality of the soul, and was driven to take his own life in 1640, in the city of Amsterdam. The painting, completed around 1888, showed its hero facing his judges, but met with a mixed reaction. Younger viewers, who by now were enthused by Impressionism, were scathingly critical of its traditional history approach, and even the Jewish press let the work pass without comment.
De Haan left Amsterdam in 1888 with his assistant and pupil Joseph Isaacson, and headed for Paris, where he stayed with Theo van Gogh, brother of Vincent. The latter advised de Haan to travel to the south to paint, but in the Spring of 1889 he went west instead, to join the school of Paul Gauguin in Pont-Aven. This didn’t work out well at first, but after de Haan visited an exhibition of modern paintings at the Café Volpini in Paris in June, he made up his mind to learn from Gauguin all about Impressionism.
De Haan quickly embraced the new style of Gauguin’s school. His painting of Breton Women Scutching Flax: Labour from later in 1889 shows that dramatic change. The two traditionally-dressed women are here ‘dressing’ flax which has already been part-processed by ‘retting’, a task which was hard and physically exhausting labour by any standard.
From Pont-Aven, Gauguin and de Haan moved to the quieter Le Pouldu, where de Haan supported him financially. In October, the two moved into a small inn run by Marie Henry, and de Haan had an affair with her. By mid-November, Gauguin and de Haan had started decorating the dining room of their rented quarters by painting its walls – which were later covered over until their rediscovery in 1924.
Marie Henry had a young daughter, Marie-Léa or Mimi, at the time, and one of de Haan’s most touching paintings shows mother feeding her infant. Sadly, I can’t find an image of suitable size to show here.
The following year, de Haan painted this Still Life with a Profile of Mimi (1890), when Marie Henry’s daughter was old enough to sit at the table and stare longingly at the apples de Haan was painting.
Another of his paintings from this period is this Still Life with Apples and Flowerpot (c 1890).
It was probably then that de Haan painted himself in this Self-portrait (c 1889-91), the one which was stolen in 2012. Is that Marie Henry standing at the window behind him?
By the end of the summer in 1890, de Haan was running out of money. Gauguin hoped that the Dutch artist would travel with him to an exotic tropical island, but de Haan suddenly left Le Pouldu. No one knew what he intended, particularly as by now Marie Henry was expecting their child, and de Haan had left all his possessions behind.
De Haan next appeared in Paris, in early 1891, when he mourned the death of Theo van Gogh. He seems at that time to have been involved with the Nabis, among whom he was dubbed le nabi hollandais, the Dutch Nabi. He vanished again, reappearing back in the Netherlands two years later, in deteriorating health. He died from tuberculosis in Hattem, the Netherlands, on 23 October 1895, at the age of only 43.
His tragedy only worsened. Attempts to give his masterwork Uriël Acosta to the Rijksmuseum were unsuccessful, and the painting was (and remains) lost. His other work could only be disposed of for trivial sums, and has almost all been lost too. Had it not been for the few paintings which he left in his haste to depart from Le Pouldu, nothing at all would have survived. Thankfully, his daughter Ida, whom he never saw, kept those. But even she was unable to persuade a museum to take them, and they finally went to auction in 1959.
Sad though the destruction of those other six paintings was, the art thieves of the Kunsthal in Rotterdam came perilously close to destroying the last remaining traces of Meijer Isaäc de Haan.
Exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay.