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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Adriaen van de Velde. Part 2 – beachscapes and landscapes

In my second blog on the seventeenth century Dutch artist, Adriaen van de Velde I want to look at his landscape and beachscape paintings.

The Beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1658)
The Beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1658)

Probably his best-known beachscape work is his 1658 painting entitled The Beach at Scheveningen which can be found in the Staatliche Museen, in Kassel, Germany and is looked upon as one of the outstanding works of the Dutch Golden Age.  Scheveningen is a district of The Hague.  It was a fishing village at the time of the painting and it was not until the early nineteenth century that it became a seaside bathing resort.

Of the painting and Adriaen van de Velde, the eminent Dutch art historian Horst Gerson wrote in a 1953 article in the Burlington Magazine, quoting from the eighteenth century German art historian Gustav Waagen’s 1860 book, Handbook of painting.  The German, Flemish and Dutch Schools:

…At the age of nineteen he was already in this department one of the greatest masters that ever lived; the picture dated 1658, in the Kassel Gallery, displaying a tender feeling for nature, a mastery of drawing and a delicacy of chiaroscuro and harmony which are truly astonishing…”

 The setting is a bright but windy summers day on a wide sandy beach which is populated by several visitors who have come to take in the bracing sea air.  In the centre foreground, we see a well-dressed young couple, who are probably on a day trip to the seaside.  To their right we see a group of children playing in a large puddle of water, the remnants of the previous high water.  To the left perched on a hill is a church with its tall steeple, beneath which we see a rider on a horse galloping parallel to the line of dunes.  A covered wagon slowly trundles along the tide line.  Towards the right foreground, we see a group of fishermen, with their trouser legs rolled up, preparing to go into the water with their nets but the most unusual character is the one in the extreme right of the work.  Take a look at him.  His trouser legs are also rolled up.  Is he yet another fisherman or somebody who just wants to paddle and feel the sea caressing his feet.  His hands are clasped casually behind his back.  He is lost in thought as he looks out to sea. Maybe he was once a seafarer and is now remembering those times.

The Beach at Scheveningen by Simon de Vlieger (1633)
The Beach at Scheveningen by Simon de Vlieger (1633)

Depictions of the Scheveningen beach were often seen in paintings by other Dutch artists such as one of Adriaen van de Velde’s tutors, Simon de Vlieger’s 1633 in his work The Beach at Scheveningen.

Painting before restoration
Painting before restoration

Another work entitled View of Scheveningen Sands painted by Hendrick van Anthonissen in 1641, featuring the same beach, has a very interesting story attached to it. The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has owned the work since it was bequeathed to them by amateur artist and clergyman Edward Kerrich in 1873.  By chance, the painting came to the Hamilton Kerr Institute, a division of the museum, renowned for paintings research and conservation, because the Dutch Golden Age gallery of the museum was being renovated.

View of Schevningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen (1641)
View of Schevningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen (1641)

The varnish coating on the painting had yellowed and become unsightly.   Initially, what appeared strange to the museum experts about the depiction was why were the people clustered at the sea edge and on the dunes above, on a cold wintry day staring at the tide line.  What were they looking at?  There then followed a long discussion among the experts of the museum about the potential risk of damaging the painting if and when they removed the varnish and some of the over-painting.  However, it was agreed to let the conservator, Shan Kuang, proceed to remove the overpainting, using a scalpel and solvents, working on tiny areas at a time,  under a microscope.  She then discovered that there appeared to be a man standing in mid-air, next to what looked like a sail from a boat.   After more of the over-painting was removed they realised the man was not standing in mid-air but on the back of an enormous whale which had beached in the shallows and what at first was thought to be a sail was in fact the whale’s large dorsal fin.

Carriage on the Beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1660)
Carriage on the Beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1660)

There is another Scheveningen beach painting by Adriaen van de Velde in the Louvre entitled Carriage on the Beach at Scheveningen.  This was completed in 1660 and is yet another of his works featuring the popular Dutch seaside resort.  In the painting we can see an imposing carriage making its way along the beach at Scheveningen.  The carriage is being directed by a man in a blue uniform, who sits astride the lead white horse, whilst the driver, who sits atop the carriage, is seen cracking his whip. There is a bit of humour added to this work as we see one of the valets, who is also bedecked in blue livery, running after two hunting dogs, which are happily playing on the sand. It is thought that the carriage was that of William, the young sovereign Prince of Orange, who would later become William III of England (William of Orange).  The tide is out, and we see local villagers walking along the beach.  Children are playing and, in the right foreground, we see a man carrying a large net, coming back from fishing. The composition, which is mainly made up of horizontals, is split by the vertical of the boat mast and the church steeple.  Sunlight comes diagonally from the left of the depiction, illuminating the white horses and casting long shadows of the people and carriage on the sand .  This soft golden light is probably due to the influence of the Dutch Italianate painters of the time such as Jan Both, Karel Dujardin and Nicolaes Berchem who had all stayed in Italy.  They had travelled extensively around the country and had adopted the style of landscape painting that they found there, and then incorporated Italian models and motifs into their own works.  Every detail in the painting has been meticulously drawn by the artist and it was his ability to draw characters that made him popular with other artists of the time who needed figures added to their landscapes or beachscapes – staffage!

Panoramic Landscape with a Horseman and a Post Wagon by Adriaen van de Velde (1661)
Panoramic Landscape with a Horseman and a Post Wagon by Adriaen van de Velde (1661)

However, Adriaen van de Velde is probably best known for his landscape paintings.  His painting, Panoramic Summer Landscape with a Horseman and a Post Wagon, which he completed in 1661 was described by Wolfgang Stechow, the German American art critic, pianist, and violinist, as being:

“…a landscape of such serene beauty and golden softness that its comparison with a Mozart melody will not, the writer hopes, be dismissed as farfetched…”

The setting is a late summer afternoon.  In the work, we see a man astride a horse being given directions.  Man and horse are bathed in sunlight as is the field with its four sheaves of wheat.  Cast in shadow, we also see a woman with child on her back and one by her side and a shepherd who is looking after his small flock of sheep.  In the right middle ground, also in shadow, is a small village on the edge of an expanse of water, with its church and tall steeple.

A River Scene by Salomon van Ruysdael
A River Scene by Salomon van Ruysdael

This type of composition we see before us with a tall tree on one side was dubbed by Wolfgang Stechow as being of a “one-wing composition” pattern which had been favoured by Salomon van Ruysdael.  It is a type of composition in which the large tree in some way acts as an introduction to the viewer to gaze at the panoramic view in the rest of the depiction.  Ruysdael’s landscapes would often have a single tall tree or a group of them to one side of his landscape paintings.  In this painting, van de Velde has counter-balanced the mass of leaves atop the tree on the left with the dense clouds on the right.

Departure for the Hunt by Adriaen van de Velde (1662)
Departure for the Hunt by Adriaen van de Velde (1662)

A painting by Adriaen van de Velde which has elements of a landscape painting but is populated by many figures is entitled Departure for the Hunt, which he completed in 1662.  In all. there are sixteen human figures, eight horses and twenty-three dogs.  However, most are hidden in shadow and only the couple on the left, the man astride the horse blowing the hunting horn and the groom tending the rider-less white horse are illuminated by sunlight.   The painting was last publicly exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1952.  One of the reviewers of the exhibition was Horst Gerson wrote about it in the Burlington Magazine.  He remarked:

“…The well-to-do English collector of the eighteenth century loved to possess a good Adriaen van de Velde with his Wouwermans and Aert van der Neer.  The brilliant colours and the refined technique of these artists appealed to the cultivated taste of the upper-class…”

The "haves" and "have-nots"
The “haves” and “have-nots”

It is a highly colourful depiction and we are prompted to look at the detail of the work with its many figures.  We see beggars in the bottom left of the work trying to cajole the well-dressed couple into helping them financially.  This combination of the two beggars and the wealthy beautifully adorned couple makes us aware of the “haves and the have nots”.  To the right in the foreground we see the amusing scene of one of the dog handlers struggling manfully to control his charges.  It seems he is losing the battle.

 There are so many more paintings I could have included but I though this is just a “taster” to whet your appetite and persuade you to research more of his works.  If you live in London the Dulwich Picture Gallery is exhibiting a collection of his works until January 15th 2017 and I hope to visit there before it closes.  A book which accompanies the exhibition, Adriaen van de Velde, Dutch Master of Landscape was my main source for this blog.

Tomorrow I am off on a three day trip to The Hague to visit the Gemeentemuseum and the Alice Neel Exhibition and see the works of the American artist whom I extensively covered in six blogs a month or so ago and whilst in the Dutch city I hope to visit some other art galleries and feast my eyes on some beautiful Dutch and Flemish seventeenth century art.