From 1882 through 1889, welcomed by the Belgian avant-garde, Indonesian born artist Jan Toorop lived intermittently in Ixelles, near Brussels. Joining the newly formed Lex XX (Les Vingt) in 1884, he was immediately part of the inner circle of the “revolutionaries”: James Ensor (1860-1949) and Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921). As the sole Dutch member of Les XX, Toorop forged important relationships between his contemporaries in Belgium and The Netherlands. After meeting the British student Annie Hall (1860-1929) in Brussels, whom he would marry in 1886, Toorop split his time between The Netherlands, England and Belgium. In April 1890, the couple settled in the Dutch coastal town Katwijk aan Zee, jumpstarting a new artistic endeavor. Notwithstanding an absence from Holland for nearly a decade, Toorop was considered the most important Dutch avant-garde artist at the time, with international connections and aspirations.
Soon after returning to the Netherlands, Toorop cofounded the Haagse Kunstkring (Art Circle of The Hague), where he organized the first retrospective exhibition of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) followed by a group show of Les XX in 1892. That same year, Sar Péladan (1858-1918) visited The Netherlands, luring Toorop to join his Salon de la Rose+Croix and ushering in his foray into symbolism. Soon, seductive, fatal women, symbols of sensuality and destroyer of man, entered Toorop’s emblematic vocabulary. Embracing his colonial East Indies heritage of tropical vegetation, carvings and Hindu iconography, Toorop began his most important symbolist drawing The Three Brides, now in the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. After its completion in 1893, Toorop returned to portraiture, employing his personal symbolism: the soul is revealed in a fantasy, embodying different types of beings rather than the formality of a portrait. The sitter no longer represents a particular woman, but rather the embodiment of a melancholic mood. The androgynous knight in armor in the background is a motif that made its appearance in Fernand Khnopff’s Angel in 1889.
Although Gustav Klimt most likely never met Toorop in person, the Austrian artist was seemingly affected by his Dutch contemporary, whose work he encountered at international exhibitions like the Secession in Vienna. Toorop, participating in Viennese exhibitions from 1899 through 1902, was one of the most celebrated international artists at the turn of the century. While Nirvana was never exhibited in Vienna, it would likely have been familiar to Klimt from the reproduction in Die Kunst für Alle, the influential German magazine in 1898. Klimt’s Bleiches Gesicht (Pale Face) from 1903, heavily borrows the three-quarter length cropping of the woman, the sharp contours as well as the spiritual embodiment of the subject’s physiognomy. Crucial for the expression of reflection and meditation in both works are deep shadows around the eyes and the inward-directed gaze beneath heavy, half-lowered eyelids. Both faces are strikingly similar with the pointy chins, angular noses, and tightly closed lips. Both faces are framed with wavy curly hair, although Toorop’s sparsely use of coloration, the overall translucency of Nirvana is surely sustained.