Belgian artist and art teacher Victor Hageman was born and raised in Antwerp and trained at the Academy alongside Vincent Van Gogh, whom he recalled as a ‘disheveled [sic], nervous, and restless man who fell like a bomb on the Academy of Antwerp, overwhelming the director, the drawing master, and the students’. A socially-conscious realist painter, Hageman specialized in studies of migrants and particularly, of his Russian-Jewish neighbours. The distinctive, dark-haired young woman facing outwards (on the right of the canvas) also sat for at least two further separate studies.
Painted on a monumental scale, The Emigrants depicts three generations of one family gathered at the point of exile, their emotive expressions capturing the trauma of forced migration. In 1928 Hageman exhibited this work in Antwerp under the title ‘Jewish Family’, while an inscription on the reverse of the canvas reading ‘Descendants Israelites’ specifically references Jewish exile. Another painting of the same title is in the Museum in Antwerp, and further works by Hageman on this theme can be found in the museums of Brussels, Namur and Ghent.
The painting originally belonged to the Speth family in Antwerp, owners of the Red Star Line which arranged for many Jewish emigrants to travel to America.