Nothing that we know of Meijer de Haan’s life before 1888 suggests that he would book into an auberge run by a single mother on the Breton coast.
His parents’ eldest surviving son, de Haan was born in 1852 in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. His maternal grandfather, Aron Speijer, was a successful cloth merchant and real estate investor. He was also one of only a few Jews in Amsterdam who had the right to vote, a sign of the family’s prominence. Jews in the Netherlands were a religious minority of 1.5 to 2% of the population. They had been granted civic rights in 1796, but only the wealthiest members of the community saw change: they were theoretically no longer required to live in specific locations, the types of businesses in which they could engage were less limited, they could participate to some degree in public life. Civic rights did not mean that prejudice no longer existed. The local government in Amsterdam was slow to distribute resources equitably in the Jewish quarter, and state schools in Jewish neighborhoods were required to instruct children in Dutch instead of in Yiddish, the language most spoken at home. Relative wealth would have cushioned the experience of the de Haan-Speijer family in terms of the impact of prejudice and anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, their Jewishness would have been a central part of their identity, something that both set them apart from their Gentile neighbors and bound them together within their own community. It’s likely Aron Speijer did business with Gentiles. It’s less likely that they invited each other to dinner.
The extended family all lived within blocks of each other in Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter, the most important Jewish community in the Netherlands. Meije de Haan and Betje Goudeket, Aron’s daughters, lived together with their husbands and children in a house owned by their father. The household was full of children: four little de Haans and seven little Goudekets. One of the only surviving artifacts of Meijer’s childhood is the prayerbook that a leading Dutch rabbi, Zalman Rubens, presented to the family on the occasion of Meijer’s circumcision. That the family kept it tells us of its cultural and spiritual value. Meijer and his cousins would have attended both a state school and a separate religious school. His sister and girl cousins would have likely had less education than the boys. They would have been taught to read and write, to study the Talmud, to keep the practices and observances of generations.
Petrus Franciscus Greive, Return of the Herring Fisherman,
1860, Teylers Museum
Between 1867 and 1872 Meijer de Haan studied painting with the elderly Dutch Gentile artist Petrus Franciscus Greive. Greive was a prominent academic artist who taught his students the mechanics and style of traditional painting: sentimental scenes in dark interiors. That Greive agreed to take the Jewish adolescent as a pupil is evidence of the family’s bourgeois standing and connections in the Gentile world. Grieve died in 1872 and two years later de Haan enrolled at the Dutch Académie des beaux-arts, the fine arts school, which only grudgingly accepted Jewish students. He withdrew after only a few months: he was too ill. He lived at home and painted, and likely spent time with his younger cousins and all the relations that wandered through.
Young men over the age of 18 were required to serve in the Dutch military. When de Haan went to enlist, the health officers took down his vital statistics: he was 4 feet 10 and 2/3 inches tall and had a “slight infirmity,” which was likely tuberculosis. He was short, even in a time when the average height for a man was 5 feet 4 inches. The board dismissed him for service: too short, too sickly.
Likely because of Meijer’s delicate constitution, it was his younger brother Samuel who the family backed to open a business. Samuel de Haan opened a bakery at 186 Valkenburgerstraat in 1872. It wasn’t a bakery where you had your morning roll and coffee; it was a significant operation that produced loaves and loaves a day, in partnership with the flour merchants next door. A second branch of the bakery was dedicated only to making matzoh, for use during Passover when observant Jews could not eat leavened bread. Three years after Samuel had opened up shop, Mietje de Haan died and 23 year old Meijer moved from his parents' house to his brother's. He helped manage the business and continued to paint. The de Haan brothers were invited to join the Masonic Lodge in 1877, a mark of their prominence in the business world. A few years after that, Samuel bought the building next door. The de Haans hired an architect to renovate it and build in a studio for Meijer.
In 1878 a painting of Meijer’s was part of the Dutch submission to the Paris Salon. A Difficult Passage of the Talmud showed three men dressed in 18th century fashion poring over books in a dark bourgeois interior, with heavy, solid furniture and an oriental rug thrown over the table. The men look cheerful but focused: they may be disagreeing over the passage’s interpretation, but they’re having a wonderful time doing it. The painting won a bronze medal at the Salon.
A self-portrait from the early 1880s shows a bearded and smiling Meijer de Haan wearing a traditional baker's cap. He looks out from the page with affection and humor, a man comfortable in his skin. For the next nine years, de Haan worked in his studio and helped his brother run the business. A handful of students, all of them Jewish as far as we know, studied with him. He painted the Jewish community to which he belonged: conversations between men in a synagogue after services, discussions between rabbis wearing their prayer shawls, portraits of old men and women who are identified as Jewish. In 1888 the reviewer for the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant described his work thus:
Jewish himself, he paints his coreligionists with a fondness that will touch your heart…He understands the Jewish type so perfectly that each brushstroke is faithful to reality, both in poses and gestures and in clothing and features.
Does it make you wince? We cannot read it without knowing where all that casual talk of Jewish types led. The Courant's reviewer reveals just how separate Jewish and Gentile society were: so separate that it was unremarkable to talk of Jewish types in a major newspaper. Jews and Gentiles lived apart for the most part and did not mix socially. Intermarriage was rare and shameful. Even living outside of the Jewish community, amongst Gentiles, was unusual.
In June 1888 de Haan unveiled a massive work that had been in process for years. A history painting, Uriël Acosta showed the moment of the seventeenth century humanist and skeptic Uriel Acosta’s excommunication by the Dutch rabbinate. The painting is set in the sanctuary of a synagogue, with the ark containing the Torah dominating the wall on the left side of the canvas. Acosta, head bowed in shame, stands before a table covered in a heavy carpet. Around the table sit the eight rabbis who comprise the court. One of them, a bearded elder, leans forward to remonstrate with Acosta. The high-ceilinged, elegantly proportioned room is paneled and has a large, perhaps, brass chandelier. Behind Acosta, on the right side of the canvas, other men are seated and standing, watching the proceedings. It’s your basic history painting, only with a Jewish theme. The mainstream press praised the painting. The intellectual press panned it, making fun of it as old-fashioned and stodgy. It was a bad homage to Rembrandt, abominable, without the least redeeming feature. We cannot judge for ourselves, because the painting has been lost. All that we have are engravings.
Within four months of the reviews, Meijer de Haan had left Amsterdam. Recent scholars have suggested that it was this criticism that inspired the 36-year-old artist to pack his trunks and move to Paris. He left with one of his students, Joseph Jacob Isaacson, and the promise of a 300-franc month allowance from his brother. They arrived in Paris in October and reached out to a Dutch--and Gentile--connection in the art world: Theo van Gogh. Theo had a spare room since his brother had moved to Arles, and soon de Haan moved in. The well-connected art dealer introduced de Haan and Isaacson to his friends. Meijer de Haan's style began to shift as he saw new ways of putting paint on canvas. We have no letters from him during this time, nothing to tell us about the heady disorientation he must have felt living in a new city in a community that was drawn together not by religion and tradition but by shared intellectual and artistic pursuits.
Theo wrote to his sister about his new friends: “they’re both Jewish, but of the sort you probably haven’t seen, at least, I hadn’t known types like this before.” He went on to explain that they were Jews who seemed to have an understanding of the New Testament as well as the Old “and that they’ve found that which is human and estimable and good in the new just as much as in the old…If such a thing existed, you could call them Christian Jews.”
If I were to try to unpack this for you, we would never get back to Brittany, much less to the origins and life story of Flowers and Fruit. I’m going to leave it here with you to consider—and tell you that, for our purposes at this moment, I include Theo’s comments because they tell us that Theo found his guest easy and likable and, that wonderfully underused word, estimable. Worthy of esteem.
And I include it also because it reiterates the nineteenth century boundaries between Jew and Gentile. Theo and Vincent’s father had been a Protestant minister, and they had been brought up with their share of fire and brimstone. Who knows what they were taught about the Jewish faith, about Jews? Theo is determined to make his sister see that these two Jews are not like the others. It’s almost as though they could pass for Gentiles. Meijer must have gone to bed every night exhausted by the work of blending in.
In the winter of 1889, a complicated friend of Theo's started to come to his evening gatherings. Paul Gauguin had had an intense and short stay with Theo's brother in Arles, a stay that had ended badly. Theo was Gauguin's dealer, though, and the two remained collegial. De Haan met Gauguin through Theo. Gauguin, ever eager for a new audience, spun tales of the glories of painting en plein air in Brittany. Seduced and curious, Meijer de Haan took the train to Pont Aven in April 1889 and went from there to Le Pouldu. In less than a year Meijer de Haan had traded his comfortable, settled life in the Valkenburgerstraat, where he was surrounded by family and family connections, where he had students and professional colleagues, for a life essentially alone in foreign land where he was unknown and where his Jewish identity set him apart.
And then he met Marie Henry.