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Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Maris Brothers

The Maris Brothers, the two on the left by Willy Sliuter, the third, Matthijs, is a self-portrait.
View of the City, 1882,
Jacob Maris
It's not all that uncommon, especially among Dutch artists, to find entire families, sometimes spanning three or four generation, with several fair to good artists hanging from the boughs of the family tree. The Dutch Golden Age period during the 17th-century is loaded with such instances. Once you move into the later years, as Dutch painting became no better nor worse than all the other national flavors, art families became less common. By the 19th-century, the apprenticeship system of training artists had pretty well fallen by the wayside to be replaced by government supported art academies. Thus fathers and uncles were much less likely to train up their sons to follow in their footsteps. And, by the same token, sons and daughters were far less likely to feel the duty of carrying on the family name, especially as educational and career opportunities broadened in the modern era. Usually, when I encounter such a family of artists, I select the best one or two and ignore the others. However, in the case of the Maris brothers, Jacob, Matthijs, and Willem (above), choosing the best of the three would be splitting hairs and an injustice to the brothers not covered.

The Bridge, 1878, Jacob Maris. It's not hard to see how he
may have influence van Gogh.
Portrait by Jacob Maris
As art families go, the three brothers not only didn't look much alike, they didn't paint much alike either. Moreover, they're also rather unusual in that prior to the oldest, Jacob, taking up the brush, there doesn't seem to be a tradition of artists in the family. In fact, only one brother, Willem taught his son, Simon, to paint. Yet, the three together, came to form what has come to be called "The Hague School." And though they had fewer than a handful of students amongst them, their influence among 19th and 20th-century Dutch painters is said to have been enormous. If nothing else, they brought Impressionism to the Netherlands. Jacob Maris in particular could well have been a major influence upon Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh could hardly not have known of the elder Maris' work, having lived in Holland during the mid-1880s. Only in the area of his brilliant colors does van Gogh depart noticeably from Jacob Maris.

A Corner of the Hague Levee, Matthijs Maris

Study of an Old Woman,
Matthijs Maris
Jacob Maris was born in 1837, his younger brother, Matthijs in 1839. Jacob started taking art lessons at the age of twelve. And, by all accounts, he then taught is younger brother to paint, though both became students at The Hague Academy of Art. Willem Maris (born in 1844) seems to have picked up any painting skills he possessed either from his brothers or in being self-taught. After their time at the art academy, the two Maris boys traveled through Germany, Switzerland, and France, there no doubt picking up on the first nascent stirrings of Impressionism. In returning home (they still lived with their parents), the two took up traditional Dutch painting in the tradition of Jan van Goyen, Jacob Van Ruisdael and Johannes Vermeer.

Gabriel Painting, Jacob Maris
The Bride, or Novice Taking the
Veil, ca. 1887, Mathijs Maris
Around the mid-1880s, Jacob Maris began having some success with his work, selling and exhibition to national acclaim both in the Hague, and in Paris where he eventually set up a studio. His brother, Mathijs, upon returning home from their European travels, was not so lucky. Shows of his work in The Hague and Amsterdam were met with something less than positive reviews. Matthijs became bitter and depressed. His brother invited him to Paris where they shared a studio. However, the outbreak of hostilities in the city during the bitter days of the Franco-Prussian War and the Siege of Paris quickly sent the two scrambling back to The Hague. There Jacob Maris continued to be successful. Matthijs didn't. His landscapes lacked color and the precision to which the Dutch art world had long been accustomed.

Butterflies, Matthijs, Maris
Eventually, Matthijs' art dealer persuaded him to move to London and start over. In doing so around 1877, Matthijs came under the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites, and while he was too much of an outsider to join them, his work, superficially, at least, began to take on much of the same "look" as the highly refined, effete painters of medieval English literary legends. His Butterflies (above) would seem to indicate an affinity for John Everett Millais and his Ophelia. Matthijs' The Bride, or Novice Taking the Veil, (above, left) dates from 1887 and is considered his masterpiece. Mathijs was to spend the final years of his life in London. He died there in 1917. His older brother, Jacob, died in 1899.

Cow to the Ditch, 1885, Willem Maris--one of the best cow paintings I've ever seen.
Ducks in the Meadow,
1848 ???, Willem Maris ???
The youngest Maris brother, Willem, not only knew his limitations as an artist but was satisfied to create within them. I found one painting, Ducks in the Meadow (left) dated from 1848, which would have made the artist about four years old at the time, so the date, (or the attribution) to say the least, is highly suspect. Nonetheless, in imitating the art of his older brothers, Willem seems to have commenced painting at an early age. Unlike them, however, Willem seems to have been an "outdoor boy" learning his art, not in a studio or classroom, but out in the colorful rural meadows of the Dutch countryside.

Calves at the Trough, Willem Maris
In response to the question of why he painted cows all the time (and other farm animals), Willem Maris responded, "I don't paint cows but rather the effects of light." Nonetheless, his early work is very much involved in the study and rendering of bovine anatomical details. Later, he laid more emphasis upon the colors of nature and the effects of the early morning mist upon his landscapes. It later years, his painting style grew richer, heavier, looser, and more confident. Willem Maris may have been mostly self-taught, but that being the case, and from all appearances,he was an excellent, patient, instructor.

Boys Herding Donkeys, 1864, Willem Maris


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