Monday, February 7, 2011

Jan Toorop: Dutch-Javanese Artist

Most histories of art dealing with Symbolism, Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, mention the Dutch artist Jan Toorop.  His symbolist paintings emanate a sense of weirdness that mixes a private mythology with a dose of mysticism.

In 1886 Toorop married a young English woman by the name of Annie Hall.  (I have no idea if there is a connection with the Woody Allen film.)  In this painting of his bride we find her reading at the breakfast table.  Toorop seems more interested in the effect of white than in giving a careful rendering of her facial features.  At the time he was living in Brussels. He joined Les XX (the Twenty) and was very much under the influence of James Ensor. I think you can see the James Whistler influence too.

Woman in White (Annie Hall): 1886

A decade and a half later we can see how his style has developed. For instance in his beautiful portrait of the feminist Jeanette de Lange, we see how he has adapted Surat's pointillist technique.

Potrait of Mrs. M.J. de Lange: 1900
 Again we have a portrait of a woman reading. This time each line is finely drawn and various brightly coloured dots fill the canvas, except where he leaves the white underpainting visible through the surface, giving the painting an etherial quality.

O Grave: 1892
  But it is for his symbolist art that Toorop is best remembered. In the pencil drawing "O Grave Where is Thy Victory? two mysterious women with slim, elegant bodies and flowing hair glide and linger over an open grave. The gnarled branches and bough of a tree entangle the body of a man who is dying, or already dead. The women, presumably, are some sort of angels, helping the man to rid himself of his painful, worldly body and they gently guide him into whatever awaits after death. The flowing lines, the curve of the women's bodies and the trees and the oriental face of the woman, are typical of Toorop's enigmatic works.

The following year (1893) he produced what some regard as his masterpiece, "The Three Brides" with its coiling, flat, serpentine composition and imagery that echoes Javanese art, especially batik.

The Three Brides: 1893

And here is another of his drawings, from the same year, an illustration for a book cover done in typical art nouveau style. The Japanese influence on the swirling lines of art nouveau has often been remarked upon, but in this work of Toorop one would be correct to pick up on an Indoensian influence, especially those lines of smoke that float upward like the shadows of Wayang Kulit.

Het Boek van Verbeelding: 1893

In 1894 Toorop produced what became the most famous work of Dutch Art Nouveau. Delftsche Slaolie was a poster for a salad dressing:

Again, the faces of the women look oriental.  The flowing hair and the cloth of the dresses has something batik.  The hand gestures of the woman on the right reminds me of Sita, in a Balinese rendition of the great Hindu epic, The Ramayana.
And here is a photo of Jan Toorop, taken in 1892:

Jan Toorop: 1892

He is no blond or redheaded Dutchman. Toorop was born on Java, on what was then the Dutch East Indies in 1858. Neither of his parents, nor his grandparents had ever visited the European mother country. Although they were classified as European, and had Dutch citizenship, they had been in the East Indies for over a century. Toorop was an "Indo" or a Dutch European with some Indonesian blood. He did not set foot in Europe until he was aged 14. During his youth he never paid much attention to his own background, but as his "exotic" looks began to work a mesmersing influence on some of his admirers, particularly some female followers, he invented an imaginative family background, including a Javanese princess as a mother. Toorop's mother was certainly not a Javanese princess. But there is little doubt that his family did have Javanese ancestors, and perhaps Chinese. Little research has been done on Toorop's Javanese roots. Art historian Robert Sibelhoff alone has written an account of Toorop's childhood. He suggests: "The claim to a princess for a mother and to the arms of knighthood seem to derive from (a) lively imagination. Thus one notices in Toorop a changed attitude toward his Origins between the mid-1880's and the mid-1899's. By the end of this time, the dual heritage is seen as partly responsible for the merging of the European and Asiatic visions in his art." Furthermore, Sibelhoff quotes Jan Toorop himself, reminiscing: "The East Indies have meant very much to me. The Indies cannot be left out (weggedacht) of the beautiful, half-Chinese environment on Banka and the Oriental nature there in the Indies brought me in contact with beauty for the first time. The dresses which work on your imagination, the beautiful materials, the mask-plays in the Chinese Kampongs ... although I, of course, did not understand anything of it, for it all was in a kind of Chinese, nevertheless it made an enormous impression on me, even as a child".

Art in general is a neglected area within the historiography of European colonialism. Likewise, most histories of western art give little or no attention to the contributions of Asian artists, or the Asian roots of some European artists. An example of this would be the Javanese roots of Jan Toorop's work.

Jan Toorop in his studio: 1911


  1. It's very interesting to see the evolution of Toorop's style as well as the mix of european and asian influences.
    I had never heard of Jan Toorop before, this is a real discovery for me.
    His painting of J. Lange using Seurat's Pointillism is outstanding. He managed to obtain such much detail...

  2. Hi DeeBee,
    If you want to see a lot more of his work I recommend clicking on the last words of my post -this will bring you to the huge website of the Jan Toorop Research Centre, which includes images of hundreds of his paintings.

  3. nod...I have been at this art history caper for 21 years now and have not thought much about the Asian origins of European artists.

    Your first beautiful painting, Woman in White: Annie Hall, 1886, says it all. Toorop could have been influenced by James Whistler himself, John Singer Sargent, or even Claude Monet. In each case, I doubt if Toorop was thinking of the Asian origins of his own work.

  4. Excellent point Hels. When Toorop arrived in Europe he studied art in Holland and Belgium and was influenced by the modern European movements of the time. But later, during the 1890s, like many exiles before and since, he began to focus more, and more on his roots. For Toorop, as with many exiles, these roots were imaginative, as much as real (he began to belkieve that he was not only descended from Javanese royalty, but from Vikings too). By delving into this mythical past he went beyond the influence of Sargent, Monet, et al.