The 19th century Dutch painter Meijer de Haan (1852-1895), whose life was cut short by tuberculosis, has been so overshadowed by his mentor Paul Gauguin that even New York’s MoMA, which owns Gauguin’s 1889 portrait of de Haan, misidentifies the sitter as “Jacob Meyer de Haan” (sic). More than merely getting de Haan’s name right, a landmark exhibit currently traveling through Europe, accompanied by a brilliantly produced catalogue from Éditions Hazan, reestablishes him as a considerable artistic force.
Now at Paris’s Musée d’Orsay from March 16 to June 20, “Meijer de Haan, the Hidden Master” originated at Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum, and from July 8 to October 11, will be seen at Quimper’s Musée des Beaux-Arts.
The show reveals an energetic painter inspired by Jewish themes, such as “Old Jewish Woman,” now in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum and “Criticism,” in Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum, the latter depicting a Talmudic dispute. Some of de Haan’s finest Jewish-inspired works are in private collections, such as “A Difficult Passage in the Talmud” (1878), and “Portrait of a Sleeping Rabbi” (1882), making this exhibit even more of a must-see.
de Haan’s family, owners of de Haan Bread and Matzo Bakery in Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter, funded his art studies and enabled his 1888 move to Paris, where he boarded with art dealer Theo van Gogh (Vincent’s long-suffering brother). Theo described de Haan in a letter as a “hunchback, but one without an ounce of malevolence,” adding that de Haan was a “biblical” Jew insofar as he combined “all that is human and all the good” from both Old and New Testaments. A self-portrait from 1889-1890, reproduced on the cover of the Éditions Hazan catalogue, reveals an intense, clear-eyed gaze, full of integrity.
From 1889 to 1890 de Haan painted alongside Gauguin in Brittany, but sadly did not live long enough for any putative lessons to become visible in his art. de Haan’s posthumous fame was dealt a serious blow when his family members were deported and murdered at Sobibor in 1943, while his main pupil Baruch Lopes Leão de Laguna, a Sephardic Jew from Portugal, was killed at Auschwitz around the same time. This posthumous rediscovery of an artist of humane talent is long overdue.