Hendrik Willem Mesdag. Part 3. Bomschuiten, Storms and Panorama Mesdag

Hendrik Willem Mesdag by Hendrik Johannes Haverman
Hendrik Willem Mesdag by Hendrik Johannes Haverman

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.

Beached Bomschuiten by Moonlight by Hendrik Mesdag
Beached Bomschuiten by Moonlight by Hendrik Mesdag

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.

The Scheveningen Fishing Fleet putting to Sea in Hevay Weather by Hendrik Mesdag
The Scheveningen Fishing Fleet putting to Sea in Hevay Weather by Hendrik Mesdag

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…”

After the Storm of 1894 by Hendrik Mesdag (1894)
After the Storm of 1894 by Hendrik Mesdag (1894)

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.

Fishing Boats and Fisher-folk on the Beach of Scheveningen by Hendrik Mesdag (1872)
Fishing Boats and Fisher-folk on the Beach of Scheveningen by Hendrik Mesdag (1872)

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!

London Panorama by Robert Barker (1792)
London Panorama by Robert Barker (1792)

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.

Panorama Mesdag with Sientje sitting under white parasol
Panorama Mesdag with Sientje sitting under white parasol

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.

Panorama Mesdag - view of Scheveningen
Panorama Mesdag (detail) – view of Scheveningen

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 The Hague 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

panorama_mesdag_3
Panorama Mesdag (detail) showing Cavalry exercising the horses on Scheveningen Beach

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”.

Panorama Mesdag Gallery
Panorama Mesdag Gallery

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…”

Panorama Mesdag Viewing Gallery
Panorama Mesdag Viewing Gallery

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.

50th wedding anniversary of Hendrik Mesdag and Sientje Mesdag-van Houten in the Pulchri Studio
50th wedding anniversary of Hendrik Mesdag and Sientje Mesdag-van Houten in the Pulchri Studio (1906)

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.

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Hendrik Willem Mesdag. Part 2 – his wife, Sientje Mesdag van Houten.

Sientje Mesdag van Houten (c.1905)
Sientje Mesdag van Houten (c.1905)

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 van Houten-Mesdag in her studio (c.1903)
Sientje Mesdag van Houten in her studio (c.1903)

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.

Winter Scene by Johannes Christiaan d'Arnaud Gerkens (1875)
Winter Scene by Johannes Christiaan d’Arnaud Gerkens (1875)

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.

Head of a Dog by Sientje van Houten (1875)
Head of a Dog by Sientje Mesdag van Houten (1875)

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.

Still Life with Yellow Roses by Sientje van Houten Medag
Still Life with Yellow Roses by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

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

Sheep Barn hidden behind Ancient Oaks by Sientje van Houten Medag
Sheep Barn hidden behind Ancient Oaks by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

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.

Camelias in Vase by Sientje van Houten Mesdag
Camelias in Vase by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

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.

Farm and creek with boat by Sientje van Houten Mesdag
Farm and creek with boat by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

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 and Hendrik Mesdag
Sientje and Hendrik Mesdag

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.

Hendrick Willem Mesdag. Part 1 – The early years, family and influences

Hendrik Willem Mesdag
Hendrik Willem Mesdag

If you are a young aspiring artist I wonder what your dreams are.  You obviously hope that your painterly skills will improve over the following years.  Maybe you dream that your love of painting could become your main livelihood but for that to happen maybe it needs some sort of financial breakthrough.  Perhaps you hope that one day you could also afford to build up a collection of paintings created by well-known artists and that your collection grows to such an extent that you house them in your own museum.   An impossible dream?  The artist I am looking at today achieved all this, so sometimes what you wish for does come true.

Hendrik Mesdag at work in his studio
Hendrik Mesdag at work in his studio

Hendrik Willem Mesdag was born in Groningen on February 23rd 1831.  His father Klaas, who originally was a grain merchant, later became a very successful stockbroker and banker, and was also active in politics, but maybe more importantly, for the future path of his sons Hendrick and Taco, he was an art collector, amateur painter and draughtsman.   Hendrick’s mother was Johanna Wilhelmina van Giffen, who came from a wealthy family of silversmiths.  Sadly, she died at the age of 35, when Hendrik was just four years old.  Hendrik had an elder brother Taco who was born in 1829, a younger brother Gilles, born in 1832 and a sister, Ellegonda, who was born in 1827.  His cousin was the renowned painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema and the two men and their wives would remain friends throughout their lives.  As schoolchildren, both Hendrick and his older brother Taco showed and early artistic talent and their father decided to send them for some artistic training.  They both received drawing lessons from the Dutch painter, Cornelis Bernardus Buys who had also tutored Jozef Israels and later received drawing tuition from the Dutch painter and photographer, Johannes Hinderikus Egenberger.  However, for Hendrik, once he left school at the age of nineteen, art became just an enjoyable pastime, as he believed that his future, like that of his father, lay in banking.  Hendrik Mesdag joined his father’s bank where he remained for the next sixteen years.

Hendrik and Sientja (1906)
Hendrik and Sientja (1906)

On April 23rd 1856, when Hendrik was twenty-five years old, he married Sina (often known as Sientja) van Houten, who was three years his junior.  Her father, Derk van Houten, was a wealthy timber merchant who owned a large sawmill just outside Groningen.  She was the eldest of seven children brought up by a wealthy family, and she, like her husband, would become a painter later in life.  Hendrik’s love of art during his days as a banker did not diminish, in fact in August 1861 he enrolled as a pupil at the Academie Minerva, a Dutch art school based in Groningen.  On September 25th 1863 Sientje gave birth to their son Nicolaas, who was called Klaas.

In 1864, a year after she gave birth to her son, her father died and left her an inheritance which she finally received in 1866, the size of which was enough to allow her husband Hendrik to give up his job in his father’s bank and concentrate on his painting. You may wonder what Hendrik’s father thought of his son’s decision to quit the world of banking and take up a more hazardous life as an artist.  Maybe that can be answered by a passage in a letter he wrote to his son on October 9th 1868:

“…Keep up the good work and fulfil if possible my hope that you will someday become a true artist…”

In the Spring of 1866, Hendrik wrote to his cousin Laurence Tadema-Alma asking for some help with his desire to become a professional artist:

“…‘I’m 35 years old. I’ve a wife and child. I’ve been trained for business, but am not cut out for it. I’m a painter; help me…”

Tadema-Alma arranged a tutor for Mesdag.  He was Willem Roelofs, the Dutch painter, water-colourist, etcher, lithographer, and draughtsman and was one of the forerunners of the Dutch Revival art and one of the founders of the art society known as The Hague Pulchri Studio.  Roelofs agreed to train Mesdag but he didn’t come cheaply.  Roelofs wrote of his tuition agreement saying:

“…‘In the autumn (September) I’m expecting a new pupil, a cousin of Tadema, Mr Mesdag from Groningen. The 1,200 francs His Honour gives me is nothing to sniff…”

 

Roelofs wrote from Brussels to Mesdag on May 27th 1866 to tell him he looked forward to tutoring him:

“…As I’ve already told Alma-Tadema, nothing would give me greater pleasure than helping you with your study of landscape, and I hope to be able to stimulate you to make progress in our art…”

Woodcutters by Hendrik Mesdag (c.1866)
Woodcutters by Hendrik Mesdag (c.1866)

Before starting his tuition, Hendrik Mesdag took his wife Sientja on a short break to Oosterbeek, a small village on the outskirts of Veluwe in eastern Netherlands which was famed for its beautiful landscapes. At that time, Oosterbeek was the site of one of the first Dutch artist’s colonies. The artists there were followers of the French Barbizon naturalist tradition, and it attracted painters, such as landscape painter Johannes Warnardus Bilders, who was one of the the first to settle there and they were inspired by the open air and were able to capture the fluctuations of light. Bilders soon became an inspiration to many other painters who flocked to the region.  This would have been an ideal place for Mesdag to practice his en plein air painting.  Mesdag wrote Roelofs in May 1866, to tell him about his Oosterbeek plans.  Roelofs heartily approved of Mesdag’s plan to spend the summer making sketches directly from nature, and replied to his letter:

“…since, if you were here, I could advise you to do nothing better…”

After his summer sojourn in Oosterbeek, Mesdag and his wife and child move to Brussels in September 1866 where he began his three-year studies under Roelofs.

We know a little of the initial training and advice Mesdag was given by Roelofs as in the 1996 edition of the Van Gogh Museum Journal there is a quote from the van Houten archives of the dbnl (digitale bibliotheek de Nederlandse lettern) in which Roelofs advice to Mesdag is quoted:

“…Try and rid yourself of all so-called manner and, in a word, try and imitate nature with feeling, but without thinking about others’ work. Paint studies of parts, a bit of land for instance, a stand of trees or something of the kind, but always in such a way that it can be grasped in connection with the entire landscape […]. – These studies [are] in order to become acquainted with nature bit by bit. – Further studies of a whole, preferably very simple subjects. – A meadow with the horizon and a bit of sky […]. Paint all these studies not so you can bring home something beautiful […] but for yourself…”

Interior with Staircase by Hendrik Mesdag (1868)
Interior with Staircase by Hendrik Mesdag (1868)

Willem Roelofs was a great follower of the Barbizon School and the Barbizon artists whose paintings faithfully reproduced nature in their depictions.  Roelofs wanted Mesdag to go away and paint depictions of his own surroundings.  There was nothing to be fanciful about the depictions.  Roelof just wanted Mesdag to paint realistic depictions of his everyday life and what was happening around him.  One example was his 1868 painting Interior with Staircase.

Interior with Wife and Child by Hendrik Mesdag (1868)
Interior with Wife and Child by Hendrik Mesdag (1868)

Another early work by Mesdag was entitled Interior with Wife and Child which was also completed in 1868.

Fate again played a hand in the course of the artistic life of Mesdag for in the summer of 1868 he and his family went to Norderney for a holiday.  Norderney is one of the German East Frisian islands off the North Sea coast.  For Mesdag it was a veritable epiphany, for it was here that Mesdag discovered his love of the sea and seascapes and when he returned to Brussels he began to collect paintings which depicted the sea and it was from this time that he decided that he wanted to become a seascape artist. Mesdag became fascinated by the sea itself.  He was enthralled by the constantly changing shape of the waves and his sketches of the sea were testament to the realism of his art.  He constantly strived to improve his depictions of the sea and the waves and how they were constantly changing and in an interview for the De Nieuwste Courant in March 1901 he was quoted as saying:

“…at home I had spent an entire winter fumbling at a work; it was a coastline, but very naively painted. Then I said to myself: “You have to have the sea in front of you, everyday, to live with it, otherwise all this will come to nothing…”

Near the Lighthouse by Hendrik Mesdag (1873)
Near the Lighthouse by Hendrik Mesdag (1873)

It was probably then that he knew that he had to live by the sea.  Mesdag completed his three-year study course with Roelofs in Brussels in 1869 and the family moved to The Hague where he knew that there would be an abundance of sea views at the nearby coastal village of Scheveningen.  Hendrik also gained admission to The Hague’s Pulchri Studio Painters’ Society.   The society had been formed in 1847 because of mounting dissatisfaction among the young artists in The Hague who complained about there being little or no opportunities for training in art and developing their artistic skills and so the Pulchri Studio was established.  It was also to be an artistic talking-shop where artists could exchange views and ideas.

Mesdag had completed some seascapes but felt they were not good enough to exhibit and so spent hour after hour trying to perfect his depiction of the sea and elements of landscape paintings.  In another letter, dated June 1869, to his friend Verwée he talked about the pleasure it had brought him to be near to the coast, despite the sometime inclement weather:

“…Nature is so beautiful here, but the weather has been awful so far…”

Les Brisant de la Mer du Nord by Hendrick Mesdag (1870)
Les Brisant de la Mer du Nord by Hendrick Mesdag (1870)

For an aspiring artist, the one thing which would enhance their reputation was to have one of their paintings exhibited at the Paris Salon.  Mesdag failed to get any work exhibited at the 1869 Salon and so was very hesitant in deciding to try again the following year. It was only in March 1870 that he made up his mind to exhibit two paintings, one of which was to be ‘la grande marine’ entitled Les Brisants de la Mere du Nord and the other was Journée d’hiver à Schéveningue.   He sent both entries to the Paris Salon via Brussels, where his friend, Verwée saw them at a local art dealer’s gallery.   Verwée was unconvinced by the Journée d’hiver à Schéveningue, but thought the large seascape, Les Brisant, was excellent and this approbation pleased Mesdag.

Mesdag not only had his two paintings accepted but, to the surprise of many, was later awarded the gold medla for Les Brisant. The painting marked the start of Hendrik’s illustrious career as a seascape painter and this work is now considered as the first masterworks of The Hague School.  Mesdag started on this beautiful work in November 1869 as he mentioned in a letter to his good friend Alfred Jacques Verwée, a Belgian painter who was known for his depictions of animals, landscapes, and seascapes.  In the letter, dated November 15th 1869, Hendrik wrote to Verwée, as quoted in the 1989 book by Johan Poort, Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831-1915): Oeuvrecatalogus:

“…Impressed by one of those bad days, I have painted over that large marine painting you saw. It is now much improved…”

Hotel Rauch
Hotel Rauch on Scheveningen beach front

The inspiration for this work was the North Sea at Scheveningen which was a short distance from The Hague where he lived.  So that he could spend an unlimited time at the coast, he rented a room in the Villa Elba which had a view of the sea.  Later he would move to the Hotel Rauch, located at the Scheveningen beach. Until his death in 1915, Mesdag visited the sea frequently to seek inspiration for his paintings. From his room he could observe the sea in every weather condition.

Les Brisant is a painting with a broad format, measuring 90cms x 181cms.  It is painted from a low point of view as if the artist sat or stood on the beach at the waterline with their brushes and easel, albeit we see nothing of the shore and yet through the change in tone of the colour we can see the change in depth of the water.   This low vista causes the horizon we see depicted just below the vertical centre of the work.  The one thing these two aspects achieve is it allowed Mesdag to ensure that the breakers fully stood out in this seascape. In the midground, just below the horizon we see the crest of the waves being caught by the wind.  We can tell that the depiction is during a period of adverse weather as the sky is both grey and stormy.  There are no humans in the depiction and yet if we look closely at the central foreground we see a piece of driftwood being battered towards the shore by the ferocity of the sea.  Look also to the central horizon and we can just make out a small ship battling the seas and struggling to survive.  These two elements bring home the ferocity of nature and the brutal nature of the sea that claimed so many of the lives of the fishermen of Scheveningen.

The Wave by Gustave Courbet (1869)
The Stormy Sea (The Wave) by Gustave Courbet (1869)

One knows that Mesdag was seduced by the view of the sea but what made him choose this motif for his painting?  Some believe that he was aware of the painting, The Stormy Sea (The Wave) by Gustave Courbet which the French painter completed whilst staying at Etreat and which he submitted to the Salon in September 1869 and received rave reviews around the world and maybe Mesdag realised that concentrating on the waves and sea would bring him similar acclaim, which we know was correct, as his submission gained a medal at the Salon.

In my next blog I will be looking at more of Hendrik Mesdag’s seascape works often featuring Scheveningen and their fishing folk.  It was this genre that Mesdag was mainly known for.   I will also look at the paintings done by his wife Sientje and look at the amazing and spectacular Scheveningen Panorama which Mesdag, with the help of his wife and a few friends completed and which measures an incredible 14 metres x 114 metres !!!!!