SSal Meijer was born in 1877 in the Jewish neighborhood of Amsterdam. Sally (or Salomon) grew up in a diamond cutting family after the big prosperous period of diamond industry was over. When he was 13 there was nothing else for Sal to do but help his family business in their financial misery, and he became a diamond adjuster, the assistant of the diamond cutter. He also had a few other part-time jobs that paid for the drawing lessons that he took from 1898. The world of diamonds was not kind, however. Periods of unemployment and an irresistible urge to draw ensured that Sal started to focus on art more and more, and from 1914 onwards he dedicated his life to painting.
Meijer changed his life from that of a diamond cutter to that of a painter, but according to him, he saw himself more as a tradesman than an artist. He didn’t use bold colors and didn’t invent any wild theories or artistic techniques. In fact he did nothing more than simply depict the normal, observable life in a simple, clear manner. He called his paintings not art, but “little paintings” (schilderstukjes), and if people talked about his art, he would refer to it as “trade” instead.
Perhaps it was this modesty that meant Sal Meijer didn’t find much connection with the great artists of his time. Appreciation and recognition for his work took a long time to come. The financial difficulties from the beginning of the century continued and he had to take some part-time jobs to get by. In 1957, however, came a change. Under the title “Our Greatest Modern Primitive – Painter with Meaning”, Kasper Niehuis published an article about Meijer. A quote, “Sal Meijer: Raphael of Cats”, was later used as a title for a book about Meijer as a painter of cats. After his death in 1965 his works were collected for an exhibition in Gallery Mokum. At the opening evening alone half of the works were already sold. This love for Meijer’s work would not be a fleeting one-day event.
House Cats, Yard Cats, Kitchen Cats
In contrast with the cat painters of the 19th century, Meijer didn’t embellish his cats or made them cute or fancy. Most of his cats face forwards, in the center of the work, and don’t have any toys or other cats at their side. They look at you directly. They are present, portrayed as individuals. Common in Sal’s cats is the feeling that you’ve seen them before. Look into the eyes of one of his cats and you’ll see the cat of your neighbor, or one from further down the street.
The simplicity in Meijer’s work was for a long time considered a lack of artistic courage. When the painter was described as ‘naive’ and was compared to Henri Rousseau, the appreciation for his work grew. People discovered the power of his work, and it wasn’t only in the primitive style of the paintings but also the realistic settings for his subjects. The everyday feeling of his work brought the atmosphere of a homely world with it. The naive Meijer didn’t feel compelled to make his surroundings more beautiful, he gave us the typical silence of the normal, peaceful moments of the day. It is what it is and nothing else.