Hendrik Willem Mesdag counts as one of the leading spirits of the Hague School with its emphasis on atmospheric effects and its subdued tonality.
He was born in Groningen into a family of grain merchants and bankers. After an inheritance had rendered him financially independent, he decided to devote himself entirely to painting. He received his training in the Brussels milieu, where he stayed from 1866 to 1868. Here he got painting lessons from his cousin Laurens Alma Tadema, who advised him to serve his apprentice ship with Willem Roelofs, then already known as a skilful landscape painter. Under his guidance, Mesdag adopted a broad, distinctive style of painting. Roelofs also introduced him to the art of the
Barbizon School. The Brussels milieu proved to be very inspiring to Mesdag. His house on the rue Rogier 274 became a meeting place for Dutch and Belgian artists. In Brussels, Mesdag got acquainted with the Belgian seascape painters P.J.Clays and Louis Artan, whose broadly painted seascapes influenced him considerably.
Following a visit to the island of Norderney in 1868, Mesdag resolved to become a painter of seascapes. This subject would fascinate him throughout his career. A year later he moved to The Hague. He rented a room in the nearby fishing village Scheveningen, which gave him the opportunity to be as close as possible to his main source of inspiration: the sea.
Mesdag’s final break-through took place in 1870, when a large seascape, Les brisants de lam mer du Nord, earned him a gold medal on the Paris salon. It almost immediately established his reputation. From then on, he participated regularly in the Paris salon, where his work gained support from influential critics like Paul Leroi and Joris Karel Huysmans.
Mesdag soon became one of the leading spirits of the Hague School. The art critic J.van Santen Kolff, who coined this term in 1875, called this new movement in Dutch painting ‘ultra radical’ in its stress on atmospheric effects and subdued tonalities. He mentioned it a sound realism wherein ‘truth’ and ‘art’ were no longer opposites. Mesdag fulfilled this idea of a new realism as no other. In Dutch Painters of the nineteenth century (1908), G.H.Marius wrote: ‘Hendrik Willem Mesdag came, with his direct, realistic point of view, to surprise the world with the fact that the unbiased painting of the sea, straight from nature, was not only possible, but even so desirable that the aspects of the North Sea coast were now, for the first time in the nineteenth century, represented as they appear before our eyes’. Like Santen Kolff, Marius realized that Mesdag’s broad touch, impressive truth and tonal power outshone the highly finished, minutely detailed seascapes of romantic masters before him. Mesdag’s vigorous brushwork and ‘real’ seas were invariably seen as proof that his paintings possessed ‘truth’ and ‘immediacy’.
One of the accomplishments of the Hague School was the emancipation of the watercolour. Already within Pulchri Studio, the Hague art society presided by Mesdag, watercolours and drawings were being discussed and shown to collectors.
However, these meetings had a rather private character. Following the example of the Brussels Société Belge des Aquarellistes (founded 1855), the painters of the Hague School formed the Hollandsche Teeken Maatschappij (Dutch Drawing Society) in 1876. This society devoted itself solely to promoting drawings and watercolours. It was headed by Mesdag, Anton Mauve and Jacob Maris.
The society included a wide variety of members, ranging from the Hague School painters Johannes Bosboom, Jozef Israëls, J.H.Weissenbruch and B.J.Blommers to foreign artists like Jean François Millet, Mosé Bianchi, Max Liebermann and P.J.Clays.
Mesdag turned out to be the driving force behind the society, that organized annual exhibitions in the Netherlands as well as abroad. Mesdag’s special interest in watercolours is closely linked to his ambition to record free but faithful impressions of a specific moment. This met the quest for sincérité (truth) and instantanéité (immediacy), key criteria that were originally formulated for watercolours, but later on also applied to paintings.
from a private collection.
J. Poort, ‘Hendrik Willem Mesdag 1831-1915’, oeuvrecatalogue,
Wassenaar 1989, inv. no. 1879.2, p.212, with ill.