Sunday, 24 January 2016


“While I recognise the necessity for a basis of observed reality... true art lies in a reality that is felt.” - Odilon Redon

Johannes Theodorus ‘Jan’ Toorop (20 December 1858 – 3 March 1928) was a Dutch-Indonesian painter, who worked in various styles, including Symbolism, Art Nouveau, and Pointilism. His early work was influenced by the Amsterdam Impressionism movement.

Jan Toorop was born in Purworejo on the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia). His father was Christoffel Theodorus Toorop, a civil servant, and his mother was Maria Magdalena Cooke. He was the third of five children and lived on the island of Bangka near Sumatra until he was nine years old. He was then sent to school in Batavia on Java.

In 1869 he left Indonesia for the Netherlands, where he studied in Delft and Amsterdam. In 1880 he became a student at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. From 1882 to 1886 he lived in Brussels where he joined Les XX (Les Vingts), a group of artists centred on James Ensor. Toorop worked in various styles during these years, such as Realism, Impressionism Neo-Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

After his marriage to an Annie Hall, a British woman, in 1886, Toorop alternated his time between The Hague, England and Brussels, and after 1890 also the Dutch seaside town of Katwijk aan Zee. During this period he developed his unique Symbolist style, with dynamic, unpredictable lines based on Javanese motifs, highly stylised willowy figures, and curvilinear designs.

In the late 19th century (in 1897) Toorop lived for 20 years in a small house on the market in the seaside town Domburg, Walcheren, Zeeland. He worked with a group of fellow artists, including Marinus Zwart and Piet Mondrian. There was no joint endeavour or common style among them. Each followed his individual personality, but they sought their inspiration in “the Zeeland light”, in the dunes, forests, beaches and the characteristic Zeeland population. Toorop was the centre of this group.

Thereafter he turned to Art Nouveau styles, in which a similar play of lines is used for decorative purposes, without any apparent symbolic meaning. In 1905, he converted to Catholicism and began producing religious works. He also created book illustrations, posters, and stained glass designs. Throughout his life Toorop also produced portraits, in sketch format and as paintings, which range in style from highly realistic to impressionistic. Toorop died on 3 March 1928 in The Hague in the Netherlands. His daughter Charley Toorop (1891–1955) was also a painter, as was his grandson Edgar Fernhout.

The image shown above is “The Vagabonds”, of 1891. It is executed in pencil, crayons and ink on cardboard, 65 x 76 cm and exhibited in the Kröller-Müller museum, Otterlo. There is a strong graphic, illustrative element in the work, and one can easily imagine it as a book illustration. The brilliant colours – particularly the blues and greens – draw the viewer’s eyes into the work and one is mesmerised by the syncopated rhythm of the lines, before one registers the faces of the two women and the ‘vagabonds’ of the title.

The lugubrious graveyard setting and the menacing faces of the men contrast with the dead (sleeping?) woman and the anxious mourning woman in black on the right. This is a fascinating work and it seems that it could have quite a story attached to it. The death of the artist’s first daughter shortly after her birth may have influenced his vision, perhaps, but also the artist’s contraction of venereal disease and his temporary blindness in 1887 could have left him with some psychological baggage that may be seen in his work.

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