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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Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. Part 5. Clouds and marine paintings

If there is one other thing I have learnt since taking an interest in art is that by reading up on the paintings and the artists one learns a lot about history, whether it be European or American.  One picks up on things which should have been learnt at school but sadly passed one by.  Today’s look at the work and life of Christoffer Eckersberg is a good example of this in the way I have learnt a little about Danish history.

In 1807 the British shelled the Danish capital, Copenhagen.  This was the second ferocious onslaught on the Danish city as six years earlier a similar attack had been made.  It was all to do with the Napoleonic War and the Franco-Russian alliance secret agreement to ensure that Denmark and Sweden would assist them in a naval blockade of British trade.  British diplomats went to Copenhagen to ask the Danish government to put their naval ships under British command until the Napoleonic War had ended but the Danes would not agree and so on September 2nd 1807, the British army landed in Denmark and attacked the Danish capital.  The Danes finally surrendered and their naval ships were taken over by British sailors and sailed to England that October.

The Fire of the Church of Our Lady by Christoffer Eckersberg (1807) The Royal Library, Copenhagen
The Fire of the Church of Our Lady by Christoffer Eckersberg (1807)
The Royal Library, Copenhagen

My first painting I am looking at today by Christoffer Eckersberg, The Fire of the Church of Our Lady, records the terrible onslaught on Copenhagen and is a prime example of history through art.  The work shows the burning of the church steeple of the cathedral of Copenhagen, during the night of September 4th 1807. The steeple eventually fell to the ground.  In the painting we see the pandemonium in the neighbouring street due to the fierce assault and the resulting blitz.

The Bombardment of Copenhagen. View from Ostervold by Christoffer Eckersberg (1807) (50 x 60cms) Museum of National History, Frederiksborg Castle
The Bombardment of Copenhagen. View from Ostervold by Christoffer Eckersberg (1807)
(50 x 60cms)
Museum of National History, Frederiksborg Castle

Another of Eckersberg’s painting depicting the bombardment of Copenhagen can be seen in his 1807 work The Bombardment of Copenhagen.  View from Østervold.  Shortly after the British naval bombardment of the Danish capital, Eckersberg, who was living in Copenhagen, made many drawings, for prints, of the conflagration of the most famous landmarks of the city and by doing so captured for posterity the terrible events.  He managed to capture the feeling of panic which gripped the citizens of Copenhagen when the first shells fell on their beloved city.  Works like this were in general demand and brought about a patriotic stirring that swept through the Danish population in the wake of this British bombardment.

Cloud Study, Thunder Clouds over the Palace Tower at Dresden by J C Dahl (1822) (21 x 22cms) Nationalgalerie Berlin
Cloud Study, Thunder Clouds over the Palace Tower at Dresden by J C Dahl (1822)
(21 x 22cms)
Nationalgalerie Berlin

When Eckersberg returned to Denmark in 1816 after his stays in Paris and Rome he lost contact with most of the international artists of the time, with one exception, the Norwegian painter J C Dahl.   Johan Christian Dahl lived in Norway but spent much time in Dresden and would pass through Copenhagen on his journeys between there and his homeland.  It is known that J C Dahl was fascinated by clouds and their formation and had produced many works featuring this natural phenomenon, one of which was his 1825 painting, Cloud Study, Thunder Clouds over the Palace Tower at Dresden.  For Dahl, the sky was an integral part of a landscape painting, and he would spend many hours observing cloud formations and watch as they crossed over land.

Eckersberg and Dahl developed a lasting friendship and it could have been Dahl’s fascination with clouds and his interest in meteorology that infected Eckersberg, so much so that Eckersberg began a twenty-five year hobby of keeping a daily meteorological diary and would regularly sketch cloud formations.  J C Dahl would also have informed Eckersberg about how both artists and art theorists in Dresden were showing great interest in cloud formations.  Eckersberg was also fascinated by the work of Luke Howard the English manufacturing chemist and amateur meteorologist who in 1802 classified the various tropospheric cloud types and believed that the changing cloud forms in the sky could unlock the key to weather forecasting.

C.W. Eckersberg (1783-1853), Studie af skyer over havet, 1826
Study of Clouds over the Sea by Christoffer Eckersberg (1826) (20 x 31cms) Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

In 1826 Eckersberg decided to master the art of painting clouds and he took himself off to Kalkbraenderibugten, a bay just north of Copenhagen so that he could paint a range of studies of clouds over water and the painting above, Study of Clouds over the Sea, is one he completed that year

A Russian Fleet at Anchor near Elsinore by Christoffer Eckersberg (1826) (32 x 59cms) Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
A Russian Fleet at Anchor near Elsinore by Christoffer Eckersberg (1826)
(32 x 59cms)
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

Looking at Eckerberg paintings so far I have concentrated on his mythological and biblical works along with some of his portraiture and nude studies but another genre of works favoured by Eckersberg was his marine works which also featured cloud depictions.  A prime example of this is a work he completed in 1827 entitled A Russian Fleet at Anchor near Elsinore.

View of a Harbour by Casper David Friedrich (1816)
View of a Harbour by Casper David Friedrich (1816)

The next marine painting by Eckersberg I am featuring could well have come about from a visit he made to the atelier of Casper David Friedrich in Dresden in 1816, on his way home from Rome.  It is quite possible that during that meeting he saw Friedrich’s newly completed work View of a Harbour.

The Russian Ship of the Line “Asow” and a Frigate at Anchor in the Elsinore Roads (1828) (63 x 51cms) Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
The Russian Ship of the Line “Asow” and a Frigate at Anchor in the Elsinore Roads (1828)
(63 x 51cms)
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

This marine painting by Eckersberg is one of my favourites and also one of his best known marine works.  It is his magnificent 1828 painting entitled The Russian Ship of the Line “Asow” and a Frigate at Anchor in the Elsinore Roads.  It is a triumph of detail, not just of the vessel itself and the way he has truthfully represented all the details of the rigging but how he has painstakingly depicted the cloud formation.   So can we look at this as a mastering of plein air painting?  Actually, no !   This is an idealised marine painting made up from a number of Eckersberg’s sketches done at different times and different locations.  He may have been able to see some Russian ships at the Elsinore Roads in 1826, but at a great distance away, and it was not until sometime later that he observed a number of Russian ships at close quarters when they were at anchor in the Copenhagen Roads and it was during that fleet’s visit that he was able to go aboard the admirals’ ship, Azob, (although he later called it Asow !).  He started the painting in 1828 and for accuracy got hold of some constructional drawings of the vessels from the naval dockyard.  He even went as far as consulting his meteorological diary to check the weather conditions on the day the Asow was at anchor off Elsinore, and so the completed 1828 painting is not what Eckersberg saw on that day at Elsinore in 1826 but what he would have seen if he had been able to set off from land in a boat to witness, close up, the mighty Asow.

Eckersberg loved marine painting and in his later years concentrated on this genre at the expense of his once favoured landscape works.

A View towards the Swedish Coast from the Ramparts of Kronborg Castle by Christoffer Eckersberg (1829)
A View towards the Swedish Coast from the Ramparts of Kronborg Castle by Christoffer Eckersberg (1829)

A View towards the Swedish Coast from the Ramparts of Kromborg Castle by Eckersberg is another example of his marine/cloud painting.  From his diary we know that this plein air work was started in September 1826 but was not completed until January1829 .  The artist had positioned himself on the ramparts of the castle looking out across the Øresund towards the coast of Sweden, which was just four kilometres away.   The castle which is on the extreme north-eastern tip of the island of Zealand is in the town of Helsingor and was immortalised as Elsinore in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. It is a painting which doesn’t just focus on ships and clouds but looks at life going on inside the castle.  We see two maids tending to newly-washed clothes.  We can also see military personnel looking out at the warship in the Øresund strait.  They are engaged in guarding the castle and stand by the gun emplacements.  A Danish flag flutters in the wind as a reminder of the importance of the fortification to the country

The Corvette Galathea in a Storm in the North Sea by Christoffer Eckersberg (1839) (48 x 64cms) Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
The Corvette Galathea in a Storm in the North Sea by Christoffer Eckersberg (1839)
(48 x 64cms)
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

My final look at Eckersberg’s marine paintings is one he completed in 1839 with the title The Corvette Galathea in a Storm in the North Sea.  Eckersburg had been a passenger on the vessel in the May of that year when it was crossing the North Sea on its way to Dover and encountered a fierce storm, which lasted two whole days.  On his return home he wrote up about this dramatic voyage in his diary which he later translated into this painting.  In his diary he wrote:

“…hideously rough waters, in which the ship veered horribly, now up and down, now to one side or the other, making it difficult to hold on tight………when the sun was shining the sea had the most extraordinary beautiful colour, pure blue and green, with glittering white foam….”

Eckersberg’s depiction of the Galathea is as if he had been witnessing the event from another vessel.  The sketches he made in the diary of the event were full of blues and greens of the sea, interrupted by the white of the foam which topped the waves.

The painting was completed in a month, on his return home from Hamburg.

A Sailor Taking Leave of His Girl by Christoffer Eckersberg (1840) (35 x 26cms) Ribe Art Museum
A Sailor Taking Leave of His Girl by Christoffer Eckersberg (1840)
(35 x 26cms)
Ribe Art Museum

Another of my favourite Eckersberg painting has a nautical theme and yet there is no sign of a ship.  It is a quirky work entitled A Sailor Taking Leave of His Girl which he completed in 1840.  He recorded the completion of this work in a diary on June 25th 1840, in which he wrote that he had “completed a small painting depicting a sailor taking leave of his girl”.  It was Eckersberg’s interest in depicting everyday scenes and quite ordinary events in his art which resulted in a work like this.  This type of work featuring scenes from the streets of Copenhagen was favoured by him back in the days when he was attending as a student at the Royal Danish Academy of Art.  In this small work Eckersberg has offered a small part of a relationship story between a sailor and a lady and has left us to fill in the background to the happening we see before us.  He referred to this type of depiction as a “fleeting moment”.   Look at the shadows on the wall.  In the painting we see the man and woman drifting apart and yet the shadow shows them merged.  Maybe these two images are asking us to decide what comes next.  Is it a final parting or will there be a reunion?  Look how the sailor points to the shadow.  Is this a reassuring gesture to the woman that one day they will be “as one”?  Maybe that is just too romantic a reasoning.  Maybe it is simply a sailor on leave from his ship wanting to seduce the young woman and take her off to a more secluded place.  I will leave you to decide !

Langebro, Copenhagen, in the Moonlight with Running Figures by Christoffer Eckersberg (1836) (45 x 33cms) Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
Langebro, Copenhagen, in the Moonlight with Running Figures by Christoffer Eckersberg (1836)
(45 x 33cms)
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

My final offering is also a “fleeting moment” depiction.  Eckersberg completed Langebro, Copenhagen, in the Moonlight with Running Figures in 1836.  This is what is termed as one of Eckersberg’s “unresolved narratives”.  The idea for this work came to Eckersberg in October 1836 when he was taking a stroll along the waterfront.  He decided to paint a depiction of the bridge, not in the daytime but he decided to make it part of a nocturnal moonlight scene.  To the depiction of the bridge he has added a number of people running along it, towards us.  As was the case in the previous work, Eckersberg has depicted a scene and let us, the observers, work out what is going on.  Are the people running away from something, such as a fire or are they running towards something?  There are certainly signs of desperation in the way the people have been portrayed.  Look at the woman by the bridge railing.  What is she pointing at?  The painting poses many questions.  One line of thought is that in the same year Eckersberg completed the work the Danish novelist Carl Bernhard published his new work Dagvognen (The Stagecoach), the climax of which is set on the Langebro and told of a young man  rescuing a young woman who is trying to drown herself.

Christoffer Eckersberg was married three times.  In the Part 1 of this blog I talked about his first and somewhat disastrous marriage to Christine Rebecka Hyssing the father of his first child.  This ended in divorce in 1816 after just three years.  The following year he married Julie Juel, the daughter of his great mentor, the Danish portrait painter, Jens Juel.  Julie died in 1827.  A year later, in 1828, Eckersberg, aged 45 married Julie’s sister Sanne.  They were married for twelve years until her death in 1840.  Eckersberg fathered eleven children.

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg died in 1853 of cholera.  He was seventy years of age.