Grensoverschrijdende inspiratie


6.2 Jacobus van Looy

Van Looy went on a study trip to Italy in 1885, as one of the two winners of the Dutch Prix de Rome (along with Jan Dunselman). A year later, in 1886, August Allebé, the director of the Rijksacademie van Beeldende Kunsten, gave the two artists a choice between spending another year in Italy and going on to Spain and Tangiers. Coming from the head of Amsterdam’s traditionalist art academy, this was a rather remarkable proposal. Both chose Spain. Van Looy’s aim was to ‘copy a Velasquez (The drinkers or part of it) or something else and see a new landscape.’1 Since their travels were chiefly intended as an opportunity for them to copy paintings by old masters, he spent a great deal of time in the Prado in Madrid. He was allowed to decide for himself what to paint; his choices included Velázquez’s ‘The fool’ (The jester Calabacillas) and ‘The drinkers’ (The triumph of Bacchus). He reflected on the Spanish master in a letter to the artist Willem Witsen: ‘He has made delightful portraits, grand and simple in their execution and artistic through and through. It’s just that I sometimes find his work a bit thin, a bit lacking in texture.’2 Soon after his journey, Van Looy made portraits of his own in which he tentatively emulated the chiaroscuro of Velázquez’s figure pieces. These included his portrait of the prosperous Jewish diamond merchant Jacob Batavier [5].

Jac. van Looy
Portrait of Jacobus Batavier (c. 1860-1923), 1890
canvas, oil paint 108 x 71,5 cm
upper right : Jac. van Looy
The Hague, Kunstmuseum Den Haag, inv./ 10-1931

In addition to his interest in old masters, Van Looy became fascinated with gypsies. He sketched and painted a girl and her family in Granada, lavishing attention on their exotic appearance and using warm hues [6]. Apart from that, the picture is more or less an everyday household scene. Van Looy had hoped to find a touch of the exotic or picturesque in Spain, but the reality disappointed him: ‘Where are the Mussulmen? Or even the little figures in Doré’s illustrations? Were they figments of the imagination, or have they all blown away on the steaming breath of locomotives?’3

Jac. van Looy
Gypsy family, 1886 dated
canvas, oil paint 85 x 66 cm
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

He therefore mostly painted and sketched everyday scenes, such as Woman selling melons [7], whose subject is no Spanish beauty, but a woman he saw on the street. In this respect, Van Looy is comparable to two other Dutch painters of the 1880s, Isaac Israels and George Hendrik Breitner, who depicted servant girls in the streets of Amsterdam around the same time.

Finally, the watercolour Madrileños seeking diversion shows that Van Looy's personal style was also slowly taking shape in Spain [8]. The rhythm of the dark parasols and white shawls and the powerful division of the picture plane look forward to the fields of flowers and other landscapes in his later work.

Jac. van Looy
People from Madrid resting in the shadow of trees and umbrella's, 1886
paper, aquarel paint (watercolor), pencil, heightened in white 275 x 500 mm
Christie's (Amsterdam) 2001-10-23, nr. 140

Jac. van Looy
Melon saleswoman, 1886
canvas on board, oil paint 72,2 x 39 cm
Private collection


1 ‘een Velasquez (De wijndrinkers of een gedeelte), of wat anders kopiëren en een nieuwe natuur zien.’ Letter from Jacobus van Looy to August Allebé, Venice, 12 November 1885, in: Van Looy 1975 (note 1), p. 91.

2 ‘Hij heeft heerlijke portretten gemaakt van een eenvoudige en grootsche factuur, en door en door artistiek, alleen vind ik z'n werk dikwijls wel wat ijl, wat weinig relief.’ Letter from Jacobus van Looy to Willem Witsen, Madrid, 28 April 1886. National Library, The Hague. Available in digital form at

3 ‘waar is een Muzelman en waar zijn zelfs de figuurtjes van Doré’s illustraties? Is dat verbeelding, of is alles weggewaaid op de stoomadem van lokomotieven?’ Letter from Jacobus van Looy to August Allebé, Córdoba, 18 or 19 September 1886, in: Van Looy 1975 (note 1), p. 241.

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