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 !!!!!

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