For those of you who have been following my blog over the years, you will know of my love of Flemish and Dutch art. Many of you would be able to conjure up names of some of the great Netherlandish artists such as the Flemish painters Pieter Bruegel, Hieronymus Bosch, Hans Memling, Quentin Massys, and David Teniers or the Dutch painters such as Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael, Jan Steen, Johannes Vermeer, van Gogh and Rembrandt, to mention just a few. My other artistic love is paintings with symbolism and so in the blog today, I want to introduce you to a lesser known Dutch painter many of whose paintings were awash with a myriad of symbolic objects.
My painter I am looking at today is the seventeenth century artist, Evert Collier, who is famous for his vanitas and trompe-l’œil still life works and today I will look at his vanitas paintings. Edwaert Colyer, a Dutch painter possibly of English descent, (who later anglicised his name to Edward Collier) was born in Breda in January 1642 and baptised Evert Calier. He trained in Haarlem and eventually became a member of the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke.
One of the greatest influences on Collier was a fellow painter of the Haarlem Guild of St Luke, Vincent Laurensz. van der Vinne. Initially van de Vinne trained as a weaver but then decided to concentrate on painting and in his late teens. He studied under Frans Hals, who actually painted his portrait around 1660, which is now housed at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
The paintings of van der Vinne which survive today are mostly still lifes and genre scenes. They often include many aspects of trompe l’oeil and, in many instances, incorporate vanitas items.
Vanitas paintings are subtle moralistic depictions which were very popular at the time and were those works of art which, through their symbols, depicted the impermanence of life, the pointlessness of pleasure and were meant to remind people that death is inevitable. In a way they were to counter the wealth and profligacy of many of the well-to-do citizens. The word vanitas comes from the Latin noun ’emptiness’, ‘futility’, or ‘worthlessness’, which was the traditional Christian view being that earthly goods and lavish pastimes are merely fleeting and worthless moments in the great scheme of life. Such prosperity was countered by the words of condemnation from the bible (Ecclesiastes 1:2):
“…Vanity of vanities”, says the Preacher, “vanity of vanities! All is vanity.…”
The first work by Collier I am showing is one simply entitled A Vanitas Still Life which was completed by him in 1689. Let us study the work and look at the amazing detail. Look at the way Collier has depicted the string of pearls and the other jewels spilling out of an open casket. Next to the casket we see a Nautilus cup, so called as it was a cup made from a carved and polished nautilus shell and then mounted by goldsmiths on a thin stem of gold or silver to add to the extravagance. In front of the Nautilus cup we see a skull, crowned with laurel. The skull lies on top of an upturned crown, below which we see closed bellows and the jewelled hilt of a sword. The hilt of the sword traps a note to the edge of the table. The Latin inscription on the note is a salutary warning:
NEMO ANTE MORTEM BEATUS DICI. POTEST
(No one can be called happy before death)
It is a warning about not calling anyone blessed or happy, beatus, before he’s experienced all that life has had to offer.
Lying on the table behind the open casket, although not very clear in the picture, is a smouldering taper, wound with ivy. To the right of the skull one can just make out an open book.
So, what does it all symbolise? In one word, our mortality. The presence of the skull is a memento mori or reminder of death and immediately defines the work as a vanitas still life. But there are more symbolism in this work other than the skull representing death.
It is the association of the skull and the items of extreme wealth, such as the gold-stemmed Nautilus cup, casket overflowing with precious jewels and the gold crown which together remind us that wealth and power are futile in the face of death, which harks back to the passage in the book of Ecclesiastes in the bible.
Look at the richness of colour in this work. The glimmering pearls, the black and red gemstones, and the pearly grey shimmer of the Nautilus cup, which is adorned by golden figures. The whites and the golds of the crown and jewelled-bedecked sword hilt glitter in the light and are picked up in the gilded tassels of the table cloth.
As one looks at the painting one is seduced by the riches before us but one cannot get over the sight of the skull, symbolising death and the expiring taper which symbolises the transience of life, all of which serve as a warning that we should not be beguiled by such earthly wealth. Even the bellows is symbolic as they are used to pump life into a dying fire but in the painting, the bellows lie closed and of no use. The down-turned crown symbolises, which once represented power and kingship, has been symbolically overturned by death and even the bejewelled sword which once was an emblem of power and earthly might is rendered ineffectual by death.
But the painting is not all symbolising doom and gloom. There are also symbols of hope. The laurel wreath atop the skull and the open book present an encouraging note that fame achieved through learning can conquer death and this is corroborated by the note on the stone pillar:
FINIS CORONAT OPUS
(the end crowns the work)
which is a variant of the well-known Vanitas maxim:
Vita Brevis, ars longa
(Life is brief but art endures)
Above is an early work by Collier, painted in 1662, during a period when he produced some of his best work. In this depiction he includes a candlestick, musical instruments, Dutch books, a writing set, an astrological and a terrestrial globe and an hourglass, all of which are on a table covered by a heavy ornate table covering. Once again these decorative and expensive objects indicate that wealth, knowledge and power are all earthly, temporary and ultimately meaningless. The tempus fugit theme is symbolised by the burning candle, pocket watch and hourglass which also represents the brevity of life; the violin with a broken string signifies the transient pleasure of music whilst the money bag denotes the worldly riches. The scholarly books and globes represent the vanity of learning, and the military flag denotes worldly power. On a piece of paper at far right one can once again read the words from Ecclesiastes:
Vanitas Vanitatu Et Omnia Vanitas
[Vanity of Vanities, All is Vanity]
The Vanitas work above by Collier is housed in the Denver Art Museum. This one, although having a number of Vanitas symbols, does not have a skull. Look at how Collier has given through this work the idea of it being 3-D when we know it is simply a 2-D painting. Such “artistic trickery” is known as trompe d’oeil (trick of the eye).
Collier moved to London in 1693, where he lived almost ten years. In 1702, Collier returned to Leiden, where he worked productively for four years. However, due to circumstances, the artist was forced again to move to London. There, in September 1708, Evert Collier died, aged 66 and was buried in the cemetery of the church of St James’s Piccadilly.
In My Daily Art Display (June 21st, 2011) I wrote about the artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema and one of his paintings. My next two blogs are focusing on the some of the extraordinarily talented women in Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s life. In Part 1, I am looking at Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s two wives.
Laurens (Lawrence) Alma-Tadema was born in January 1836 in the small Dutch town of Dronrijp which lies in the province of Friesland. On September 24th 1863, at the age of twenty-seven he married a French lady, Marie-Pauline Gressin-Dumoulin de Boisgirard in Antwerp City Hall and the couple went on honeymoon to Italy and it was during that celebratory period that he visited Florence, Rome, Naples and Pompeii and became interested in the life during the days of ancient Greece and Rome and he acquired a life-long interest in classical archaeology and architecture and soon began to acquire a reputation as a painter of historical subjects, particularly of Greek and Roman antiquity.
The couple settled in Paris in 1864 and two years later the couple moved to Brussels, where their daughters were born. The couple had three children. A son, who died of smallpox at the age of six months, and two daughters, Laurense in August 1865, and Anna Alma in 1867. Marie-Pauline, who had health problems for several years finally succumbed to smallpox on May 28th 1869 at the young age of thirty-two. Laurens was devastated by the death of his young wife, which left him to bring up his two young daughters. Marie-Pauline appeared in many of his paintings although he only painted her portrait three times, including an 1867 portrait entitled My Studio, a three-generational work featuring her mother Madam Dumoulin, herself and her daughter Laurense.
Alma-Tadema became very depressed following the sudden death of his wife, and, for four months stopped painting. Concerned about her brother’s declining mental and physical health, his sister Atje came to live with him to help look after his children. Despite this assistance, the health of Laurens Alma-Tadema failed to improve and so, on the advice of his art dealer friend Ernest Gambart, he travelled to England to seek further medical advice. It was in 1869, whilst in the English capital that he received an invite to visit the house of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown and it was there in that December that he first met the impressionable and high-spirited seventeen-year-old, Laura Theresa Epps. It has been said that for Alma-Tadema, it was love at first sight, despite the seventeen-year age difference.
Laura was one of four children of Dr George Napoleon Epps, an English homeopathic practitioner and writer and his wife Charlotte. Laura had one brother, John, who became a surgeon and two sisters, Emily and Ellen who also later became painters. The Epps family was part of an artistic circle which included Dante Rossetti and his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, and Ford Madox Brown. The children of George and Charlotte Epps had the fortune of being brought up in a wealthy upper-middle class family and their parents were conscious of their role of ensuring their three daughters received the social skills which would bring about a “good” marriage. One of those skills was the ability to paint. With that in mind all three daughters were tutored in the art of drawing, painting, as well as music. Their eldest daughter Emily received lessons from the Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Brett and the middle daughter Ellen was taught by Ford Madox Brown. Initially Laura was happy to concentrate all her teenage efforts on her music but later began to enjoy her art.
After Alma-Tadema’s visit to London, he returned to his family home in Antwerp but his stay there only lasted a few months before he took his two daughters and sister, Atje, back to London in September 1870 where he eventually became a British citizen. So why the sudden return to England? It was probably an amalgam of three reasons. Firstly, in July the Franco-Prussian War had started and there was no knowing how far that was going to spread. Secondly, Alma-Tadema’s paintings were selling well in London and it made sense to position himself close to the buyers of his works and thirdly he was in love with Laura Epps and wanted to pursue her romantically. Alma-Tadema spoke of his decision:
“…”I lost my first wife, a French lady with whom I married in 1863, in 1869. Having always had a great predilection for London, the only place where, up till then my work had met with buyers, I decided to leave the continent and go to settle in England, where I have found a true home…”
On arrival in London he called on Laura. An insight into what happened at that meeting was given by Laura’s niece Sylvia Gosse:
“…The second time Alma-Tadema saw the young woman, he is said to have asked in his broken English: ‘Vy have I never seen any of your paintings? I know the work of both your sisters and dey are very goood [sic]!’ To which Laura replied, ‘You haven’t seen any because I haven’t done any! I am not a painter I am a musician.’ ‘I’m sure you be able to draw and paint,’ countered Alma-Tadema. ‘Vy not let me give you some lessons. I shall teach you how to paint…”
Laura agreed to be tutored by Alma-Tadema. The couple grew closer and, soon after, he asked her father for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Dr Epps was very unhappy with the liaison considering that Alma-Tadema was thirty-four and his youngest daughter was only eighteen years of age. Eventually he relented but with the proviso that they got to know each other better and didn’t rush headlong into a “fixed partnership”. Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Laura Therese Epps married in July 1871.
To commemorate their wedding Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Laura each painted a self-portrait, and the two were united by a replica of a Roman frame and hidden behind walnut shutters painted with emblems. The portraits are encircled by an inscription in elongated capitals which is evocative of Pompeiian examples and the two portraits are enclosed by doors, painted on which are two emblems – a Dutch tulip on Lawrence’s side, an English rose on Laura’s.
The family lived in London in Townshend House, near St. Regent’s Park. In 1886 the family moved to a larger house in Grove End Road, again close to Regents Park, which had been formerly owned by the French painter, James Tissot. Laura not only gained a husband, she also gained two step children, Anna Alma, then aged four and Laurense, aged six. She also took on the role of a proficient hostess at the frequent soirées organised by her and her husband for their friends from the world of art and music. Lawrence Alma-Tadema and his wife became well known on the social circuit, associating with the wealthy upper middle-class society from which his major clients were drawn. She was often asked by her husband to model for his paintings and she also modelled for other artists such as the French sculptor, Jules Dalou and the French realist painter Jules Bastien-Lepage. Besides this work as an artist’s model she was also a very talented painter. She also carried out occasional work as an illustrator, particularly for the English Illustrated Magazine.
In the early years she painted some still life works including the masterful The Mirror in 1872 in which she skilfully depicts a table and the objects placed upon it and she also incorporated a circular mirror on the wall showing a reflection of the artist at work. Paintings with mirror images were popular at the time.
Laura Theresa also took time to paint portraits of her step-children. One such painting was entitled The Tea Party completed around 1873 and featuring Laurense, the elder daughter of Lawrence Alma-Tadema.
Her artistic style was very like that of her husband’s but instead of depictions of the splendour of Roman bygone days she concentrated on depictions of Dutch interiors with their whitewashed walls and splendid antique oak furniture. They were somewhat idealised portrayals of Dutch life. The works would often include depictions of young mothers with their children both of whom were adorned in seventeenth costumes. Why depictions of life in the Netherlands? It could be that Laura developed a particular interest in this genre due to her husband’s and step-daughters’ origins, or it could have been that she was captivated by the Dutch paintings of the period. One example of this type of work is one entitled The Bible Lesson which also displays her love for Dutch painted tiles of that time.
In 1873 Laura Alma-Tadema (later Lady Alma-Tadema) began to exhibit her work at the annual Royal Academy exhibitions. Buyers and critics alike praised her work especially in countries such as France where her work was shown at the annual Salon and she was one of only two British women artists to have work accepted for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878. Her artwork was very popular in Germany where she received many awards including the gold medal from the German government in 1896, when one of her best pictures was bought by Emperor Wilhelm II.
In 1876 she completed World of Dreams. Again, we see the type of interior depiction (black and white chequered floor tiles) favoured by Dutch artists such as Vermeer with settings bathed in light streaming through a window and reflections in mirrors. In this painting Laura has portrayed a nurse or maybe a nanny or even a mother who has fallen asleep, possibly from a tiring day looking after the home and children. For comfort and inspiration she has turned to the large illustrated family Bible and the book of Amos but fatigue has won the battle.
The Dutch artist Vermeer had a great influence on Laura Alma-Tadema, and she was much inspired by the depiction of interiors in his works, which can be seen in her painting In Good Hands. The painting came about when one Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s most faithful patrons, and art connoisseurs and Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Henry Marquand, commissioned Lawrence Alma-Tadema to decorate the Music Salon at his new home on Madison Avenue which would act as a focal point for New York Society. The painting by Alma-Tadema’s wife was one of the pictures purchased by Marquand and was hung in his house. The depiction is a domestic scene with a young girl keeping watch over her younger sibling who is sleeping in a large ornate four-poster bed along with his toy windmill. The girl is seen sewing and rests her feet on a foot warmer.
An insight into the family life of Laura Alma-Tadema in 1871 can be seen in an 1896 portrait by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, entitled A Family Group, which depicts Laura, her two sisters Emily and Ellen, her brother John and Alma-Tadema himself in the background studying a painting mounted on an easel. The two emblems representing Alma-Tadema and his wife, the tulip and the rose, can be seen on the wooden frame.
On 15 August 1909 Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema’s died at the age of fifty-seven. Lawrence, her husband, was devastated and died three years later.
On her death a newspaper correspondent wrote:
“…Lady Alma-Tadema spent the months of June and July in a German cure, from which she returned a few days ago in a very weak state. She was advised to leave town immediately, and she entered an establishment in Hindhead. Here her malady suddenly took a critical turn on Friday last and she passed away painlessly after an unconsciousness of many hours on the night of Sunday…”
I hope to visit an exhibition next week which is currently on in London at the Leighton House Museum until October 29th entitled At Home in Antiquity which features many paintings by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Maybe some of his wife’s and daughter’s works will also be featured.
…………………..In hindsight, Leickert’s decision to move away from The Hague in 1848 and base himself in Amsterdam was probably a brave decision but it paid off as the next twenty years are looked upon as his best period. The finely drawn details in his works and his use of the chiaroscuro technique was looked upon by the critics as masterful. One of the first paintings he did after his move to Amsterdam was View on the Ij with Amsterdam in the Background. The setting is a view from the grounds around the tollgate on the north shore of the IJmuiden, a body of water, formerly a bay, in the Dutch province of North Holland. It was a favourite place of artists, and the Amsterdam public were always willing to buy such depictions.
Many artists depicted similar scenes and in fact Leickert completed several versions of this painting, including one with the same view but in a winter setting, entitled Winter op het IJ voor Amsterdam (Amsterdam in the Winter with the Setting Sun), which can be seen at the Rijksmuseum. It was painted from the same viewpoint at slightly different stages of sunset. Both paintings depict the same barn, house, and figure group to the left-hand side. However, the most notable difference is that the Rijksmuseum painting is set during winter and it depicts people skating on the frozen river. These two works are masterpieces in the way they depict a highly detailed analysis of light and colour, and the atmospheric fluctuations between the seasons and times of day. These were aspects of overriding importance to Leickert. Leickert left his mentor Schelfhout when he moved from The Hague to Amsterdam and began to be “his own man” as far as his artwork was concerned. An art critic at the 1850 Rotterdam exhibition which included Leickert’s winter variation of the painting commented on the work and Leickert’s newly-found independence:
“…Leickert has long managed to situate himself outside the school of Schelfhout – that is, to learn to observe with his own eyes. His view of Amsterdam in the Winter with the Setting Sun is one of those paintings at which one must gaze for a long time to recover, as it were all that is surprising and alluring about a sunset in December. The sky has a particularly divine effect, being harmoniously rendered and incontrovertibly one of the most handsome of the Exhibition…”
The “divine effect” mentioned by the critic alludes to the strong Romantic evening light depicted in the painting. In the work look how Leickert has the setting sun lighting up and colouring the sky in red, orange, and lilac tints. The setting of the painting was typical of Leickert. He often chose riverbank scenes which were full of human activity. He himself often lived in houses which were close to river or canal banks, such as the Rokin, in the centre of Amsterdam.
Having lived in both The Hague and Amsterdam he would have visited the coast on many occasions especially the fishing village of Scheveningen. Although Leickert will always be remembered for his cityscapes and landscapes he did paint coastal scenes. One such work was Fisherfolk on the beach near Scheveningen, the setting and type of depiction was very popular with artists.
We think of Leickert as a painter of enchanting scenes whether it be a riverscape, landscape or cityscape but the one facet of his talent is somewhat surprising – that of a portraitist, although he never contemplated this genre as a professional alternative to landscape painting. His 1852 Self Portrait was a triumph of tonal modulations used in the facial depiction. Look at how Leickert use of light on the skin and dark areas, as well as the clever way in which he shapes the background by the use of varying tones. What is Leickert trying to achieve with this portrait? What does he want us to take away after viewing the painting? Look at the way he is both well-groomed and well-dressed. Look at his facial expression – serious and somewhat imposing. What he has achieved with this depiction is a portrait of a professional and successful man, one who has gained success professionally as an artist and attained social acceptance. There is even a hint of elitism in his demeanour.
Leickert’s landscapes and cityscapes focused on life as it was and he rarely added to his depictions anything which signalled the changes that were taking place. He shied away from modernity. His paintings concentrated on picturesque towns and ageless, unspoilt landscapes. Such depictions had the wistful feeling of Romanticism.
I love his portrayal of the frontages of the old Dutch streets. I love how he instils in the viewer a sense of warm cosiness and contentment as we look at a winter scene with the refreshment stall on the ice. An example of this is his 1892 painting entitled At the ‘koek en zopie’ in a Panoramic Winter Landscape.
Koek en zopie (cookies and hooch!) were refreshment stalls on the ice which sold cakes and biscuits as well as hot alcoholic drinks. The strange quirk of why these stalls were on the ice and not on the land was because if they had been positioned on the mainland there would have been a tax levied on their products. Nowadays these small stalls sell drinks such as split pea soup and hot chocolate. Another painting by Leickert which featured the koek en zopie was entitled Numerous Skaters near a koek-en-zopie on a Frozen Waterway by a Mansion. On the frozen water, we see villagers engaged in their daily routines. For some, whom we see skating, it is leisure time whilst others in the depiction are using the ice to transport goods. A house with a snow-covered step gable can be seen on the right of the painting. This tall structure forms a vertical compositional element and is echoed in the two windmills and the mast of the small boat which appears to be stuck in the ice. Look at how Leickert has accurately depicted the ice with all the scratches in its surface made by the skaters and sleighs. Look at how Leickert has depicted the sky. It is masterful with variance of colours, different tones of pink, blue and grey added to which are the dark clouds. The warm colours for the sky contrasts and enhances the whiteness of the snow which emphasises the coldness of the winter day.
In 1859, forty-three-year-old Leickert leaves Amsterdam and travels to Germany where he journeyed down the Rhine valley calling at Rudesheim and later Mainz where he stayed for some time – time enough to meet, fall in love with, and on September 29th, within the year of their first meeting, marry thirty-six-year-old, Apollonia Schneider. The couple returned to the Netherlands in 1861, settling for a year in Frederikstraat in The Hague before returning to Amsterdam, where his drawings and paintings drew the attention of King Willem III.
Over time Leickert’s paintings became less popular as they were beginning to be looked upon as old fashioned and the new painters of The Hague and Amsterdam could command prices three-times as high as his were sold for. In 1887, Leickert, then seventy-one years of age decided to end his artistic career, left The Netherlands, and returned with his wife to Mainz, where twenty-eight years earlier, they had married.
Charles Leickert died in Mainz on December 5th, 1907, aged ninety-one. His obituary notice stated he was a widower with no children and it is believed that his wife Apollonia had died a few years earlier. Leickert was a prolific artist producing approximately seven hundred paintings, of which he only exhibited about eight-five.
Most of the information for the three blogs on Charles Leickert came from excellent 1999 book entitled Charles Leickert 1816-1907: Painter of Dutch Landscape by Harry J Kraaij
Today I am looking at a dynasty of Dutch artists – the ter Borch family. The head of the family was Gerard ter Borch the Elder who was born in Zwolle in 1583. At the age of eighteen he travelled to Italy and stayed in Rome and Naples for the next eleven years drawing and painting local landscapes. On his return to his home town of Zwolle he married Anna Bufkens and five years later, in 1617, she gave birth to their son Gerard.
During his final years in Italy and after his return to The Netherlands, many of the paintings by Gerard ter Borch the Elder featured scenes from the Bible, one of which was his 1619 painting entitled The Sacrifice of Abraham.
Gerard ter Borch the Elder was a talented draughtsman and this can be seen in his drawing, Head of a Girl, which he completed around 1628 and is thought to be a portrait of Sara, his daughter (by his second wife) who was four years old at the time.
Ter Borch the Elder, like many artists of the time used family members as their models and again we can see an example of this in another of his pen and ink drawings entitled Head of a Little Girl Wearing a Necklace.
A third example of Ter Borch’s draughtsmanship is his 1630’s work entitled Little Girl at a Table Holding a Slice of Melon. This small (12 x 9cms) drawing is done using black chalk, brown ink washes and black ink. The brown wash is used to shade one side of the girl’s face and to cover the background. This wash reinforces the effect of light falling on her face and her clothing. The girl stares off to the right of the painting at something which is fascinating her. Other items of food lie in front of her. She is dressed simply, wearing a wide white collar over her dress. Her hair is tied behind her head with a bow, but some loose strands have escaped and lie across her forehead.
In the late 1630’s Gerard ter Borch the Elder almost gave up his painting although he did oversee the artistic education of his children.
The eldest of the Ter Borch children was Gerard ter Borch the Younger, the only child from his father’s first marriage to Anna Bufkens, and I suppose if I was to talk about a Dutch artist by the name of ter Borch you would probably assume that I was referring to Gerard ter Borch the Younger as he was probably the most accomplished member of this talented and prosperous Dutch artistic family. He was born in Zwolle in 1617. His mother died when he was just four years old and was looked after by his father. Gerard Junior proved to be a talented painter even before his teenage years. In 1632, he went to Amsterdam to study painting and two years later, when he was seventeen years old, he went to Haarlem to study with the painter and engraver Pieter de Molijn and there, he entered the Guild of St Luke of Haarlem the following year.
In 1635 ter Borch the Younger travelled to London where he worked alongside his uncle, Robert van Voerst, the royal engraver of Charles I. Many of his travels took him to Italy, France and Spain, the latter visit being an invitation to the Spanish royal court to produce a portrait of King Philip IV which gives you an idea as to how highly he was thought of as an artist. Ter Borch received a knighthood and a gold chain and medal from the king of Spain for his artistic efforts.
Around 1646 Gerard Ter Borch the Younger was living in Münster, Westphalia, and it is here he completed one of his most famous paintings, The Swearing of the Oath of Ratification of the Treaty of Münster which can be seen in the National Gallery in London. The Treaty of Munster, which was signed in May 1648, was a momentous time in the history of The Netherlands as it finally recognised the country’s independence. This treaty and the treaty signed in Osnabruck ended the Thirty Years’ War between 1618 and 1648 in the Holy Roman Empire, and the Eighty Years’ War between 1568 and 1648 between Spain and the Dutch Republic, with Spain formally recognizing the independence of the Dutch Republic.
The oil on copper painting is set in the Ratskammer (council chamber) of the Town Hall of Münster and depicts the portraits of seventy-seven men. In the foreground, standing behind the table, dressed in black, we see the six Dutch delegates. To the right of the table stand the two Spanish. Both sets of men are ratifying the treaty simultaneously. A Franciscan monk stands behind the Spaniards on the extreme right. What appeals to me about this work is that Ter Borch has taken the liberty of including himself in the work on the far left, gazing out at us!!!!
In his earliest works, Ter Borch depicted barrack-room scenes whereas most of his later genre scenes, focused on the more refined elements of Dutch society.
Gerard ter Borch the Younger was also a leading proponent of genre scenes often featuring depictions of soldiers at rest in their barracks or the local taverns. These works were generally small and upright in format and typically depict two or three elegantly clad, full-length figures engaged in an activity such as letter writing or music making. The depiction of letter writing was extremely popular. The reason for this probably stems from the belief that letter writing was predominately a form of relaxation among the middle and upper classes and these social classes had expanded during this period which saw the Dutch economy prosper. An example of this is his 1658 work Officer Dictating a Letter. They are executed with great sensitivity of touch and show an interest in the psychology of the sitters.
Ter Borch also painted many small-scale, full-length portraits. His most important student was Caspar Netscher (Dutch, 1639 – 1684), who learned many of his master’s techniques for rendering luxurious textures and who painted, in addition to his original compositions, many signed copies of Ter Borch’s works.
Later in the 1650’s he often depicted more genteel scenes featuring wealthy members of Dutch society. One such painting was entitled The Concert: Singer and Theorbo Player which he completed around 1657 and can now be found in The Louvre. The setting is a cosy and relaxed bourgeois interior. Hanging in the background we see a large luxuriant tapestry. The table in the left foreground is covered by a sumptuous oriental carpet with its colourful, geometric design that appealed to northern painters and which signified the wealth of the household. The two young women in the painting are giving a musical performance. The lady standing on the left is playing a theorbo, a plucked string instrument of the lute family. Seated at the table is her companion who is following the score, her hand is raised as she beats the time presumably as she prepares to break into song. On the right of the painting, and looking towards us, is a young servant who has brought the ladies a glass of beer on a tray.
Another genre work from around 1654 by Gerard ter Borch the Younger was A Maid Milking Cows in a Barn. In the barn, we see a young woman squatting down in the process of milking a brown and white spotted cow. Another cow stands close by, waiting its turn. This work is a classic example of the ability of the artist to expertly depict different textures. Look at how he has portrayed the various objects dotted around the foreground of this work such as the jaggedly sculpted stool and the wooden basin which is filled with water. Look too at the chipped ceramic crock pot, and the shiny metal hinges of the buckets. The painting is housed in the Getty Centre, Museum East Pavilion in Los Angeles
Gerard ter Borch the Younger also painted many small-scale, full-length portraits such as the pendant portraits he completed around 1667 of Jan van Duren, a member of the upper ruling class of the Dutch town of Deventer and his wife Margaretha van Haexbergen. Van Duren is dressed in the opulent clothing one associated with an affluent regent and in the other work, his wife is equally well adorned.
In both cases the background is bare which avoids anything that may have detracted from the subject/patron and in the same way, the settings are minimal with just a simple velvet covered table, atop of which is a hat, in one and a fringed velvet chair in the other. The overall appearance of both portraits is one of simplicity, elegance, and dignity.
Another of Gerard ter Borch’s portraits is one entitled Gerbrand Pancras, Formerly Known as Hendrick Casimir II, Prince of Nassau-Dietz which is housed mat the Manchester Art Gallery. The three-quarter length, three-quarter right-side portrait is of a young man dressed in blue and silver clothes which are decorated with pink ribbon. The man stands looking out at us, some would say condescendingly, with a silver-topped walking stick in his right hand whilst his left-hand rests on his hip. Lying to the side of him is a table, covered by a red cloth, on which is a black hat dressed with a white feather. The inscription states that he is 12 years old.
Anna Bufkens, the first wife of Gerard ter Borch the Elder and the mother of Gerard ter Borch the Younger died in 1621, aged 34. Shortly after the death of his first wife, ter Borch the Elder re-married. His second wife was twenty-two-year-old Geesken van Voerst. The couple went on to have two daughters, Anna in 1622 and Sara in 1624. It was around this time that Gerard Snr’s painting output declined although he would still afford his children artistic training. He also assumed the position held by his aged father, Harmen, the Licencemaster of Zwolle, a position Gerard ter Borch the Elder would hold for about 40 years until his death.
Seven years later, in 1628, Gerard ter Borch the Elder’s second wife died aged just twenty-nine years of age. Following shortly on from her death, forty-five-year-old Gerard married for a third time. His third wife was twenty-one-year-old lady from Deventer, Wiesken Matthys. There seems some doubt about how many children they had ranging from five to ten but I found that they had a daughter Gesina in 1631, a daughter Catharina in 1634, a son Harmen in 1638, a third daughter Jenneken in 1640 and a son Moses in 1645. There was also talk about another son Mattijs but I cannot find a birth date for him.
Gesina ter Borch was born on November 15th, 1631 at the family home in Sassenstratt in the town of Zwolle, where she would live all her life. She was the eldest child of Gerard ter Borch the Elder and his third wife, Wiesken Matthijs. When her father died in 1662 and her brothers had left home, she lived in her parental home with her mother, sister Catharina and her late sister, Jenneken’s three children. She never married.
Gesina became a great talent in the art of draughtsmanship and when she painted she favoured the medium of watercolours. Her paintings which were mainly for her and her family’s pleasure and were usually small in size but vibrant in colour. She had not received any formal artistic training except for the tuition afforded to her by her father who had also taught his sons, Gerard the Younger, Harmen and Moses.
Gesina over time collected her pen and ink and watercolour drawings as well as her poetry in three albums, Materi-Boeks, the first of which was begun in 1646 when she was just fifteen years of age. Her art books were a combination of her art and her scrapbook. She printed drawings of her family members, newspaper clippings, children’s and friends’ artwork, and many copies of her half-brother Gerard’s work and that of her brother Moses.
The one painting she is probably best known for was her posthumous portrait of her youngest brother Moses ter Borch which is in the Rijksmuseum. It was a collaborative work with her step brother Gerard ter Borch the Younger. Moses, who was born in 1645 and died in 1667, aged twenty-two, during the storming of Fort Languard near Felixstowe in England. He had served in the Dutch navy which had been fighting against the English since 1664. It is a painting full of symbolism and meaning. Time is alluded to by the inclusion of a pocket watch, death is symbolised by the skull, loyalty by the inclusion of a small lap dog looking lovingly at his master and eternity by the depiction of the ivy on the rocks. Moses ter Borch was buried in Harwich.
In the above collaborative portrait, one can tell that Gesina’s stepbrother Gerard probably was the greater of the two contributors to the work but a quite simplistic portrait of her brother and his death can be seen in her painting which was part of one of her albums.
Moses himself was also an artist and when he was about sixteen years of age completed a self-portrait.
He also completed many sketches, some were oil sketches like his very small (8 x 7cms) work with the strange title, Self Portrait, the so-called Portrait of Jan Fabus which he completed in 1661.
The final artist of the family was Harmen ter Borch. He was the eldest son of Gerard ter Borch and his third wife, Wiesken Matthys and the sister of Gesina and Moses. There are several his sketches in the Rijksmuseum including one depicting soldiers which he completed when he was just twelve years old.
Another, the Beestenconcert was completed in 1653 when he was fifteen years old.
But probably my favourite is his colour sketch entitled The Broken Bridge which he painted in 1655 when he was seventeen years old
With such a number of artists in one family, one wonders whether family life was a very competitive environment. Gerard ter Borch the Younger was by far the greatest of the family artists but it is good to remember that he had some talented siblings.
When I have to travel to meetings in the UK and have an overnight stay, I try and go to local art galleries and see what is on offer. I am often somewhat disappointed with the collections. I suppose I expect too much. It is my own fault. I should realise I am not going to find a hidden Uffizi or Prado in a provincial town as I am aware that building up an art collection is a costly affair in this day and age. So, to my great surprise and pleasure, yesterday I discovered a real gem. I was in Cheltenham for a meeting and had the afternoon free so decided to go and find their art gallery. It is called The Wilson and it has a small but wonderful collection of paintings many of which are from an era I particularly love – seventeenth and nineteenth Dutch and Flemish works of art. My blog today is all about the gallery and some of these paintings.
For a gallery to become established it obviously needs a collection of paintings and this almost always means it has to have a benefactor who has bequeathed the gallery a large number of works of art. The regency spa town of Cheltenham and The Wilson had the second Baron de Ferrieres to thank for their foreign painting collection. He died in Cheltenham in 1864 and left his large art collection to his son the third Baron, Charles Conrad Adolphus du Bois de Ferrieres, who in 1898 donated forty-three paintings and a sum of £1000 to the town of Cheltenham to set up a gallery to house the works of art, and so it was his generosity that today’s gallery began life and was able to house such a rich collection of work.
The first painting I am showcasing is entitled Trees, Castle and Skating Figures by Marinus Adrianus Koekkoek the Elder (1807-1868). Marinus Adrianus Koekkoek the Elder was a 19th-century Dutch landscape painter who was born in Middelburg and was the son of the painter, Johannes Hermanus Koekkoek who gave him his early art lessons. Marinus had two brothers, Barend Cornelis and Hermanus who were also artists. Koekkoek was primarily based in Hilversum and Amsterdam, where he later died.
Fortified Building on the Banks of a Canal is another fine example from the Ferriers collection. It was painted around 1850 by the Dutch landscape artist, Cornelis Springer who was born in Amsterdam in 1817. Springer became a member of the Amsterdam painters collective Felix Meritis and won a gold medal for a painting of a church interior in 1847. He was the most skilled of the Dutch townscape painters in the nineteenth century. He consistently strived for topographical accuracy in his townscapes and this he achieved by many hours studying the design plans of the original buildings. His townscapes have a meticulous style with attention to light and atmospheric conditions. In this work Springer has somewhat abandoned his normal detailed depiction of the buildings an sought to concentrate the light and atmosphere which makes the depiction more Romantic that topographically correct.
Adrianus Eversen was a pupil of our previous painter, Cornelis Springer and spent most of his life painting in Amsterdam. He, like Springer, was known for his townscapes and street scenes. However, unlike Springer most of his townscapes lacked topographical accuracy. In his painting, Dutch Street Scene, which he completed in 1858, we see a row of buildings which the artist has depicted with architectural accuracy but the setting was probably just a figment of his imagination rather than a real street. He completed many paints of this ilk which were simply entitled “Dutch street scenes”.
A fête champêtre was a popular form of entertainment in the 18th century, and took the form of a kind of garden party. This form of entertainment was especially prevalent at the French court where at Versailles large areas of the park were landscaped with follies, pavilions and temples to have the capacity for such revelries.
The term fête champêtre comes from the French expression for a “pastoral festival” or “country feast” and this may be construed as being a simplistic form of entertainment, but in the eighteenth century, a fête champêtre was usually a very graceful and stylish form of entertainment which would sometimes involve whole orchestras hidden from sight amongst the trees and participants would be in fancy dress. Joseph Anne Jules Le Roy (1853-1922), the Parisian-born painter, was a specialist in military scenes and animals and in this painting of his we see those two themes. In his painting, Fête Champêtre: Cavaliers and Women Round a Gaming Board we see depicted the fête champêtre in the grand manner with the people dressed in Flemish seventeenth century costumes.
This was different to the sumptuous costumes depicted by the French artist, Jean-Antoine Watteau’s in his 1721 painting, Fête champêtre (Pastoral Gathering).
The next painting which is also part of the Ferrieres Collection comes from an earlier period. This is thought to be a late sixteenth century work and is attributed to Isaac Claesz. Van Swanenburgh. He was a Dutch Renaissance painter who was born in Leiden in 1537 and died in the same town in 1614. The work, entitled A Flemish Fair, reminds me of works by one of my favourite artists, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who was a contemporary of Isaac Claesz. Van Swanenburgh. The depiction of fairs in paintings was very popular in the last decade of the sixteenth century.
Everhardus Koster (1817-1892) was a Dutch painter who specialized in sea and river scenes. He studied at Frankfurt-am-Main’s Stadelsches Kunstinstitut and would later become a member of the Amsterdam Academy and for twenty years was the director of Het Pavijoen in Haarlem, he served as Director of the various museums that were formerly housed in the Villa Welgelegen. One of his paintings, Ruins over the River Birchel at Zutphen is part of the Ferrieres Collection.
Willem van Mieris (1662-1747) was the most successful genre painter of his generation and a leader of the painters of Leiden. He was a master of cabinet pieces. In this painting, A Hurdy-Gurdy Player Asleep in a Tavern, which is dated 1690, the setting is the interior of an inn. Van Mieris has meticulously depicted the numerous details of the inn itself as well as the table laden with food. Not only is this a genre painting but it is also an extremely talented example of a still life featuring a meal of herring and plaice, a bun of bread and the brown German stoneware jug on the table and let’s not forget the authentic portrayal of the hurdy-gurdy. So what is the painting all about?
Surrendering to the effects of alcohol he has imbibed, the old hurdy-gurdy player has fallen asleep with his instrument on his lap. The sleeping musician, a simple beggar, is dressed in rags. Behind him the female maidservant holds aloft a pouch of money which she may have just taken from the sleeping musician. She is ecstatic. Two other tavern revellers look on in the background. Hurdy-gurdy players were a frequent theme in Dutch peasant painting. They were people who would liven up happy gatherings with the primitive and penetrating sound of their instrument. Willem shared his liking of depicting lively tavern scenes such as this one with his father Frans van Mieris the Elder. Willem painted several hurdy-gurdy players set in an inn.
Besides the Dutch and Flemish paintings bequeathed to The Wilson there were some interesting works that the museum had acquired over time. The Artist’s Wife, Evelyn, seated reading is a work by Gerald Gardiner. Gardiner worked at the Cheltenham School of Art teaching drawing and painting from 1927 until his death in 1959. It is a painting which exudes the quiet domestic atmosphere of life at home. This work was painted at the Bisley home of Gerald and Evelyn Gardiner and is an example of the artist’s depiction of a night-time scene with his wife enjoying the company of her book, showing up the light, reflections and shadows which are cast by the gas lamp and fire as his wife reads. It wonderfully encapsulates an atmosphere of domestic bliss and, for us, nostalgia as we see Evelyn reading a book by gas-light in front of the fire. Gardiner was particularly interested in painting night-time scenes and here he balances a powerful composition and the subtle effects of light. Gerald Gardiner was born in 1902. He studied at Beckenham School of Art and the Royal College of Art where he was awarded an Associateship with Distinction in 1926. In 1927 he was appointed second master at the Cheltenham School of Art, in charge of the drawing and painting department, later becoming Painting Master, where he worked until his death
Stanley Spencer was one of the most original artists of the modern age and it was good to see one of his works hanging in The Wilson. Spencer’s paintings have special characteristics; we are urged to work out the story behind each painting and the work on show, Village Gossip is no exception. It was painted around 1939 whilst he was on holiday in the Gloucestershire village of Leonard Stanley. I will leave you to work out what you think is going on this painting. Look at the body language of the woman on the right with her arms tightly folded across her chest. Look at the accusing stance of the elderly man and woman on the left. Even the small girl points towards the young man in an accusatory gesture. He bows his head in a somewhat remorseful manner. What is he being accused of?
There were so many other excellent works of art on show at The Wilson and if ever you are in or around Cheltenham, I urge you to pay it a visit.
Following his visit to the Frisian island of Nordeney in the summer of 1868, Hendrik Mesdag would dedicate the rest of artistic life to seascapes and maritime paintings. He and his wife Sientje had moved back to The Hague in 1869, a town which was a short distance from the coastal district of Scheveningen which offered him the perfect situation for his seascape paintings.
Scheveningen, at the time of Mesdag, was a small fishing village which has since grown to become one of the most popular beach destinations of The Netherlands. In the 16th century the village of Scheveningen had less than 900 inhabitants whose livelihood was dependent on fishing. In the 19th century the main fishery was focussed on the catch of the herring. These were the golden times for the Scheveningen’s fishing industry but by the end of the 19th century the fishery almost ended since few young folk of Scheveningen followed in their fathers’ footsteps in becoming fishermen.
One of the main features in Mesdag’s seascape depictions was the fishermen and their flat-bottomed boats known as bomschuiten on the beaches at Scheveningen. When Mesdag went to live in The Hague, there was no harbour for the fishing boats and they would have to rest on the beach and the fishermen would simply pull them on and off the shore. To get them into the sea for the next fishing trip was quite a complex and unusual affair which I saw explained in a write-up on the Gallery Rob Kattenburg website.
“…At about six feet from the water’s edge a heavy anchor is placed in the sea with a smaller anchor fixed to the same cable to prevent the large anchor from what is known as ‘crabbing’ – that is, sliding over the bottom – when the boat is being launched. At a short distance from the vessel an even smaller anchor is fixed to the cable. The youngest anchorman, with the anchor over his shoulder, walks into the sea up to his neck and then drops the anchor. Only after this has been done are the fishermen carried one by one by the so-called carriers or swimmers and set down on a ladder placed at the stern of the vessel. Then the carriers themselves climb on board. A complete crew numbered nine men. Then the anchor cable is wound round a primitive wooden windlass and the handspikes are inserted. Simultaneously with each rolling wave the crew strains to pull the cable in and thus draw the ship out to sea until they reach deep water. At some distance from the coast the sail is hoisted and the boat sets off for the fishing grounds…”
The low lying Dutch coastline was often battered by storms, one of the worst being in 1470 when it destroyed the church and half the houses. The village was again hit by storms in 1570, 1775, 1825, 1860, 1881, and 1894, the latter being the most devastating. At that time a safe harbour had yet to be built and as usual the fishing fleet of the flat-bottomed bomschuiten had been pulled up on the beach. They were devastated by the ferocity of the storm and most were smashed to pieces and this devastation was captured in Henrik Mesdag’s painting After the Storm 1894. After this last storm, the villagers decided to build a harbour. Once the harbour had been constructed in 1904, more modern fishing boats replaced the bomschuiten.
The painting Hendrik Mesdag was probably best known for was his panorama painting which became known as Panorama Mesdag. I remember when I travelled to Venice many years ago, and visited the Gallerie dell’Academia I came across the enormous painting by Veronese entitled The Feast in the House of Levi. I could not believe how big it was – it measured 18ft high and 42ft in width. However, this fades into insignificance if you compare it to the size of Hendrik Mesdag’s Panorama which is 46ft high and 394ft in circumference (14m x 120m). Trust me, seeing is believing!
Panorama paintings had existed prior to Mesdag’s effort. A panorama or panoramic painting is a massive work of art, which depicts a wide and all-encompassing view of a subject. But what is a panorama? The word was coined by the Irish painter Robert Barker, the inventor of the visual panorama, by merging the Greek for pan, “all,” + orama, “that which is seen.” They could be depictions of a battle, historical event or a landscape and were very popular in the nineteenth century, a time before television or the cinema. The Irish artist, Robert Barker experimented with the idea of representing nature at a single glance. Barker was born at Kells, County Meath, in 1739. He set himself up as an artist in Dublin but was never very successful and eventually left Ireland and settled in Edinburgh, where once again he set himself up as a painter of portraits and as a miniature painter. If not a great painter, Barker was certainly a great inventor and devised a mechanical system of perspective which he taught. One day when atop Calton Hill, one of Edinburgh’s main hills set right in the city centre he had the idea of a panorama painting of the city below and in 1787, helped by his twelve-year old son, Henry, he made drawings of a half-circle view from the hill and later in his studio completed his picture in water-colour and took it to London where sadly, it was not well received. However, Barker believed in his project and completed a whole-circle view of Edinburgh twenty-five feet in diameter. He went on to exhibit the work in the Archer’s Hall at Holyrood and afterwards in the Assembly Rooms in George Street. Later in 1788 he exhibited the work in a large room in the Haymarket, London. Barker went on to complete many more panorama paintings.
In Belgium panoramas became very popular and Hendrik Mesdag received a commission from a Belgian panorama society, Societé Anonyme du Panorama Maritime de la Haye to paint a maritime panorama. They wanted the panorama, without borders, to be centred around the Seinpostduine, which at the time was the highest sand dune in Scheveningen and was in danger of being excavated to make room for a café-restaurant.
Mesdag accepted the commission believing it to be a great opportunity to depict his beloved picturesque coastal village of Scheveningen and so, he went about enlisting the help of a few artist friends from TheHague School. He invited George Hendrik Breitner, a young art student from The Hague Academy, whose task it was to sketch the village of Scheveningen, Théophile de Bock, a friend of van Gogh, was tasked to paint the sky and the dunes and the small contribution of Bernard Blommers was the painting of a fisherwoman and her child who are looking out to sea. Another contributor to this massive project was Mesdag’s wife Sientje, who he depicted in the painting sitting down with her easel under a white parasol. Mesdag set to work on the panorama in March 1881 building a sixteen-cornered building on Zeestraat in The Hague. It incorporated a 14-metre-high structure on which Mesdag could paint his work
Mesdag and his team of painters made numerous sketches of the town and the surrounding coast and slowly over the next four and a half months the panorama evolved. Mesdag was well satisfied with the finished result. He believed the painting gave an overwhelming impression of nature. Many believe he was influenced by his training at the hands of Willem Roelofs who had stressed the importance of reality painting. Roelofs had told Mesdag on many occasions to “paint reality and nothing but reality”.
The museum housing the panorama was opened to the public on August 1st 1881 but after five years it went bankrupt. Mesdag, who was concerned as to the fate of his panoramic painting, bought the museum, and kept it open despite it losing money year on year. Vincent van Gogh, an early visitor to Panorama Mesdag, in a letter to his brother Theo, dated August 26th 1881, wrote about the panorama:
“…then I saw Mesdag’s panorama with him [Théophile de Bock], that’s a work for which one must have the utmost respect. It put me in mind of what Bürger or Thoré, I think, said about Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson. That painting’s only fault is not to have any faults…”
I visited Panorama Mesdag at the beginning of December and it was truly an amazing experience. You enter the building, past the obligatory shop and into two small rooms which house some of Mesdag and his wife’s paintings. You then follow a corridor upwards through a dimly lit long passage which opens out to what looks a circular observation gallery surrounded by the enormous painting. The observation gallery has a circular walk way with rails all around it which you can lean against as you scan the painting. As you stand on the gallery platform, the painting is 14 metres away from you and between you and the painting is sand and various items of flotsam, abandoned fishing nets and marram grasses which make it seem that you are standing on top of a sand dune looking down to the sea on one side and the village on the opposite side. This addition of sand and bits of driftwood make the whole experience more realistic.
The museum housing the panorama was opened to the public on August 1st 1881 but after five years it went bankrupt. Mesdag, who was concerned as to the fate of his panoramic painting, bought the museum, and kept it open despite it losing money year on year.
In his later years Mesdag received many honours. In 1889, he was elected chairman of Pulchri Studio Painters’ Society, the society he joined twenty years earlier, and remained in that post until 1907. He received the royal distinction of Officer in the Order of Oranje-Nassau in 1894. In February 1901 Mesdag is promoted to Commander of the Order of the Dutch Lion.
In March 1909 his beloved Sientje died, aged 74. Two years later in 1911, Hendrik Mesdag was taken seriously ill and although he recovered, his health slowly deteriorated. Hendrik Willem Mesdag died in The Hague in July 1915, aged 84.
I end with a quote from the author, Frederick W Morton who wrote an article in the May 1903 edition of the American art journal, Brush and Pencil . He wrote about Mesdag’s seascapes:
“…Other artists have painted more witchery into their canvases, more tenseness and terror. A Mesdag has not the glint of colour one finds in a Clays or the awful meaning one reads in Homer. On the contrary, many of his canvases are rather heavy in tone and are works calculated to inspire quiet contemplation rather than to excite nervous. But he is a great marine-painter because he thoroughly knows his subject – he has sat by it, brooded over it, studied it in its every phase – and by straightforward methods, without the trick of palette or adventitious accessories, has sought to make and has succeeded in making his canvases convey the same impression to the spectator that the ocean conveyed to him…”
It is very difficult to describe the Panorama Mesdag experience but if you go to YouTube and type in “panorama mesdag” there are a number of videos showing you this wonderful painting.
My blog today is somewhat shorter than usual as I decided to concentrate solely on the life and works of Hendrik Mesdag’s wife Sientje van Houten, an artist in her own right and not just “Mrs Mesdag, wife of the marine painter Hendrik Mesdag”.
Hendrik Willem Mesdag married Sientje van Houten in April 1856 and seven years later in September 1863 their only child, Klaas was born. In June 1864, her father Derk, a wealthy Groningen timber merchant, died and left her a substantial inheritance which she realised in 1866. This change in her financial situation allowed Hendrik to leave his father’s bank where he had been working for sixteen years and concentrate on his painting and eventually become a professional artist. He even managed to have one of his paintings, which had been accepted at the 1870 Salon, awarded a gold medal.
Sientje had accompanied her husband when he went to stay in Brussels to study under Willem Roelofs. Their house in Rue Van de Weyer was often the focal point for Dutch and Belgian painters, and it could well have been the conversations on art at these soirées that stimulated Sientje’s mind and enhanced her artistic talent. She, like her husband, not only received instruction from Roelofs but also from Hendrik’s cousin the professional artist, Laurens Alma-Tadema.
She accompanied her husband when he spent the summer of 1866 at the Oosterbeek artist colony and again in the summer of 1868 on the island of Nordeney where she, like Hendrik, spent time painting and sketching seascapes. The couple moved to The Hague in 1869, where they lived in a house on Anna Paulownastraat and later in a house on Laan van Meerdervoort. Her husband, who wanted to concentrate on seascapes, later hired a studio room facing the sea at the Villa Elba in Scheveningen where he and Sientje would spend hours painting and sketching. In order to improve her artistic proficiency, Sientje took drawing lessons from their family friend and painter Christian d’Arnaud Gerkens.
Life could not have been better for Hendrick Mesdag and his wife Sientje and yet fate would play a fateful trick on the couple. On September 24th 1871, tragedy struck when their beloved eight-year-old son Klaas, died of diphtheria. It must have been a devastating time for Hendrik and Sientje. Who knows whether Sientje wanted to totally immerse herself into something which would deaden the pain of loss but following the death of Klaas, she devoted all her time painting. She had been in contact with art from an early age through both her father, who had a modest art collection, which she and her siblings would have seen and of course she had lived with her husband and watched him paint.
At first, Sientje concentrated on landscape painting and would often leave home and go on painting trips in the Scheveningen dunes with her friend and artist, Harriet Lido who was constantly giving her artistic advice. Sientje Mesdag-van Houten initially focused on landscape painting and travelled to areas such as Drenthe, Overijssel and the Veluwe region in Gelderland. Besides her love of landscape painting she also liked to paint still lifes. Over the years, she became increasingly accomplished as an artist and her self-confidence grew to such an extent that she began to submit her paintings to national exhibitions in Europe and America and was happy to partake in group exhibitions held by the Dutch Drawing Society and the Pulchri Studio. Her husband was also a member of the Pulchri Studio and on a number of occasions both husband and wife exhibited together. She was also the president of Our Club, a meeting place for cultured women. Mesdag-van Houten kept in touch with other women painters and dedicated herself to the cause of the ‘poor female artist’ and became the leading light and mentor for many young aspiring female artists who would gather at her studio for advice on their artwork
She was in close contact with many art dealers and her paintings were sought after by their clients, especially her still lifes. In 1881 she helped her husband paint the amazing 1680 square metres panoramic painting of Scheveningen which has become known as Panorama Mesdag, but more about this work in the next blog. Her painting entitled Cottages at Sunset and Heath near Ede was well received at the 1889 Paris Exposition and was awarded a bronze medal.
Sientje, like her husband Henrik, were avid collectors of art and eventually amassed almost three hundred and fifty works of art as well as objet d’arts, porcelain and artefacts from Holland and Asia. Their favourites were works by the French Barbizon School artists. This massive collection dated back to the time she had gone to live with her husband in Brussels whilst he was receiving artistic instruction from Willem Roelofs. Their joint collection grew to such a size that in 1887 they had a museum built next to their house in Laan van Meerdervoort in The Hague. In 1903 Sientje and Hendrik donated the collection and the museum to the Dutch state, since which time it has been called The Mesdag Collection and having visited it a few weeks ago I can assure you it is well worth a visit.
In 1904, Sientje Mesdag-van Houten celebrated her seventieth birthday at the art society, Pictura, and during the celebration they announced that they would name a room in their new building after her. The Pulchri Studio also mounted a retrospective exhibition of her work. For many years Sientje had been simply referred to as Hendrik Mesdag’s wife but in an interview she was very forthright about how she should be remembered, as noted by the interviewer who stated:
“…Despite her marriage to a renowned marine painter, she does not wish to go down in art history as Mesdag’s wife, but as an independent “heroine of art” who follows her own path and seeks recognition for her original artistic convictions…”
Sientje van Houten continued to paint all her life. She died on March 20th 1909, aged 74 and she was buried at the Oud Eik and Duinen Cemetery in The Hague, where later her husband Hendrik and her brother the liberal politician Samuel van Houten would also be interred. There is no doubt that in her day, she was one of the best known and well regarded female artist. Sadly, despite her protestations, soon after she died her standing in the art world declined and she was once again viewed as “the wife of Hendrik Mesdag, the marine painter”. There was however a renewed interest in her life and oeuvre in 1989 when art historians discovered more information regarding her life and artwork.
In my final blog about Hendrik Mesdag I will be focusing on his seascapes and his love of Scheveningen.