Aside forn Vincent Van Gogh who worked for most of his short life in France, Jozef Israëls ranks as the most important Dutch painter of the 19th century. Israëls was the founder and leading member of the Hague School, a movement with roots in both 17th-century Dutch painting and in the more recent 19th-century French Barbizon School. This group of artists also included Johannes Bosboom, the Maris brothers, Anton Mauve, and Paul Gabriël. Together, they would dominate the Dutch art world from 1870 until the turn of the century. Hague School artists are known for their depictions of the flat landscape, and preferences for portraying peasants and fishermen in small villages - all incorporated into a tonal style, nearly colorless, which merged Realism and Romanticism.
Israëls's observations of fishing communities and aspects of Jewish life are now considered to be the most important themes in his work. Yet the earlier notion that Israëls rarely treated Jewish-related subject matter is closer to the truth. In fact, only four specific titles in his oeuvre relate to his religious heritage: "The Rabbi," "A Son of the Ancient Race," "Torah Scribe," and "The Jewish Wedding." Some might add to this Israëls's self acclaimed masterpiece "David and Saul," based on the Hebrew Bible. As in the case of many of Israëls's subjects, several versions of most of these titles exist.
The Jewish Museum's "A Son of the Ancient Race" is one of the several reworkings depicting a secondhand clothes peddler in Amsterdam's Jewish quarter, based on an 1888 watercolor in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam which includes a young girl seated on the peddler's lap. For Israëls, children served as elements of hope within scenes of sorrow and poverty. Yet for the oil version the artist preferred to concentrate entirely on the figure of the weary man. Israëls has moved the now solitary figure close to the middle of the canvas according to the compositional conventions of the Hague School. "A Son of the Ancient Race" exemplifies Israëls's compassionate observations of contemplative generic types. Having already dealt with issues of sorrow, piety, old age, and the acceptance of fate in the lives of Dutch peasants, he now directed these themes toward a humble member of his own religion. Although the sitter is known as Jacob Städel, the anonymity typical of the artist's titles suggests that the peddler's condition can be applied not just to Jews or the Dutch, but to all people.
During his lifetime, Israëls had established an important reputation in his own country, as well as in England, France, and America. In 1910, he was honored by an individual exhibition of over forty of his works at the Venice Biennale. His funeral in 1911 was marked by great ceremony and was an occasion of national mourning in Holland.