Little confidence is expressed in Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema’s reaction when his 35-year-old nephew, then a banker at the firm Mesdag & Sons, unexpectedly expresses ambitions as an artist: “A Meissonier you will never become, perhaps another Courbet…” Just as well, a recommendation followed from the Belgian landscape painter Willem Roelofs. Who had repeatedly visited Barbizon and was inspired there by the unpolished painting style of Th. Rousseau, Corot and Millet. From Brussels he addressed his new pupil: “Try to get rid of all so-called manner and try in a word to imitate nature with feeling but without thinking of the work of others.” This echoes the adage that none other than Gustave Courbet expressed five years earlier on the opinion page of Courrier de Dimanche: “The beauty given by nature is above all conventions of the artist.” These principles would guide Mesdag’s conception of art. Perhaps another Courbet…
Mesdag and his wife Sientje settle in Brussels in June 1866. According to Charles Baudelaire’s observation, who at the same time languishes in a Brussels hotel room, “Belgians found associations to find an opinion…. One thinks in community. One therefore does not think.” Hendrik Mesdag finds affiliation with the Société Libre des Beaux Arts, a progressive movement led by Louis Artan and Alfred Verwée, which advocates a new realism against the dogmas of established academism. Writer and association member Léon Dommartin believes that “the art of our time must return to man and to nature – to la grande nature” Mesdag embraces the principles of the association and, following them, strives for a modern and free art in the footsteps of French Realism.
A marine painter, however, does not find his vocation in the “sadness of a city without a river” (again Baudelaire). During a vacation on the East Frisian island of Norderney, Mesdag finally becomes captivated by the changes of tide, the cloudy skies and the bustling fishing fleet. “There I got to know the sea in all its beauty,” the painter later recalled. The next year, we write 1869, he envisages a move to The Hague. For, he writes his friend Verwée, “you must see the sea before you, every day, you must live with it, otherwise it will be nothing.”
The Brussels influence of marine painters Louis Artan and Paul Jean Clays remains unmistakably present in all Mesdag’s later work. The environment of the Hague School is decisive for his further development. Followers of The Hague School were inspired by the free brushwork and tempered palette of Barbizon, their themes leaning heavily on Dutch painting of the seventeenth century. The importance of the movement was endorsed by the critic Jacob van Santen Kolff, who also gave his name to the new style, in De Banier (1875): “This new way of seeing and reproducing is a real iconoclasm in the field of painting. What is to become, for example, of the fine, enameled brushwork and beautiful colors of a Gudin and a Meyer, or of the East Indian ink waves of a Schotel, when we have learned to find the broad ‘touche’, the impressive truth and power of tone of a Mesdag beautiful?”, to add: “Here we have realism of the truest, healthiest form before us”.
Mesdag makes a case for the interests of fellow artists, and with his organizational talent he casts himself as a foreman of the Hague School. In 1876 he is involved in the founding of the Hollandsche Teekenmaatschappij, also fulfilling administrative functions at the society Pulchri Studio. But above all he can be found almost daily in Scheveningen with a sketchbook to record his impressions of the sea. In Mesdag’s studio there are two framed sayings: Kunst is Godsdienst en Weken is Genot, ‘Art is Religion and Work is Pleasure’. This ora et labora translates into an extensive production, consequently of highly variable quality. The former banker is eminently capable of selling his work and he maintains good contacts with the international art trade.
The 1876 Philadelphia Universal Exhibition was one of the first occasions when the American public could come into contact with work by Hague School members. The Dutch entry was predominantly traditional in character, Mesdag’s artistic counterpart Charles Rochussen leading the way with five paintings. Roelofs, Bosboom, Jozef Israëls and Mesdag were each represented with three works. Mauve and Willem Maris were represented with a single painting. Gabriel, Weissenbruch, Artz and the other two Maris brothers were missing. Once again it was Van Santen Kolff who spoke up for the new generation: “If we can appreciate the beach scenes of Israëls, Mauve, Sadee and Mesdag, we will no longer be sold horses for lemons … Whoever understands our ‘realists’ can no longer swallow the Rochussen of recent years; that is certain.”
An anonymous reviewer of the American Scribner’s magazine in 1878 is moderately positive about that year’s Paris Salon, although he does devote some words of praise to the Dutch marine painter: “The quality of French painting is imitated in the entries from Belgium and the Netherlands, which are part of, rather than independent of, the French school, although in many ways different influences and environments have manifested themselves and added their own charms, especially in their landscapes and sea pieces, in which color, atmosphere, and feeling excel. Among these are Mesdag’s highly imaginative studies of the coast, which surpass all the comparable from the French gallery.” Works by Hague School painters find their way into the cabinets of American connoisseurs, often in addition to paintings from the Barbizon School.
This acquarel shows the Scheveningen bomber fleet ready to set sail “with the nets. Scrub net or lace fishing was for a long time the main source of income for the fleet, but as early as 1864 it was driven from that position by herring fishing. Each ship is manned by nine fishermen, who are carried in by “swimmers” or “porters. Two of these porters are in the water, dressed in hoosiers, a leather combination of boots and pants. From the beach, women say goodbye to their husbands and sons, from whom they will be separated for 7 to 14 days, depending on where the funnel-shaped nets are set. Each bomber fishes with two scrub nets. At a depth of 18 meters (8-10 fathoms), they fish for cod, turbot, brill and plaice. The fish are kept alive in a bunker and it is important to keep the ‘fasting time’ – bringing them ashore – as short as possible. In 1878, the Scheveningen fleet amounted to 195 fishing boats.
The atmosphere and execution recall the famous words of Gerard Bilders, forerunner of the Hague School: ‘Ik zoek naar een toon, die wij gekleurd-grijs noemen; dat is alle kleuren, hoe sterk ook, zoodanig tot één geheel gebragt, dat ze den indruk geven van een geurig , warm grijs’, “I am looking for a tone which we call coloured-grey; that is all the colors, however strong, brought together in such a way that they give the impression of a fragrant, warm grey.