Fine Art

Hendrik Willem Mesdag

Dutch, 1831-1915

Calm Sea

Oil on panel
18 1/2 x 30 1/2 inches (47.5 x 78 cm)
Framed: 28 x 34 inches (72 x 86 cm)
Signed and dated: HW Mesdag 1875


Private Collection, The Netherlands
Christies, Amsterdam, April 1999, lot 145, sold for NLG 409,570
Private Collection, The Netherlands


Johan Poort, HW Mesdag, Oeuvre Catalogus 1989, nr. 1875, page 201, (afb. II)

Hendrik Willem Mesdag was born in Groningen in 1931. Although he began with drawing lessons as a child from the artists Cornelis Buijs (1808-1872) and Johannes Egenberger (1822-1897) rather than pursuing painting professionally, he went on to work for his father as a banker. It wasn’t until 1861, at age thirty that he was accepted at the Artists' Academy Minerva in Groningen. But he did not give up his banking career until five years later.

At the age of 25 he married Sientje van Houten (1834-1909), also a painter, who came from a well to do family; her father had a wood sawing business and her brother, was politician Samuel van Houten, who famously created, the kinderwetje, the first social law against child labour. At the age of 35 Mesdag's father-in-law passed away and his wife inherited a small fortune and convinced Mesdag to pursue his painting career and give up banking. The couple moved to Brussels and Mesdag took up lessons with Willem Roelofs (1922-1897) a prominent figure of the The Hague School and Mesdag's cousin, Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema (1836-1912) who thrived in England as a Victorian painter. Indeed Alma-Tadema had a profound influence on Mesdag's early development as a painter. Though the art and artistic views of the two cousins eventually diverged, they shared a great deal in common: both men married women who likewise became painters, participated intensely in the cultural life of their day, collected pictures and objets d'art, and enjoyed international renown during their lifetimes.

In 1868, two years into his professional painting career, Mesdag spent the summer holiday in Norderney, a German island off the coast of the North Sea. There he discovered the sea, a subject matter that would engage him for the rest of his career. Mesdag moved to The Hague to be closer to the sea and built his house on the street closest to the fishing village of Scheveningen, on the newly constructed Laan van Meerdervoort. The following year, he was admitted to the art society of The Hague, the Pulchri Studio, and from 1889-1907 Mesdag served as Chairman. He spent the rest of his life in The Hague enjoying much success and his work was recognized with honors and awards such as a gold medal at the Salon in Paris (1870) and a gold medal from The Hague (1872).

Our painting of 1875 depicts various bomschuiten by the beach of Scheveningen. These characteristic fishing boats were used for their flat bottoms, so that horses could pull them straight onto the beach after a day at sea, enabling the fishermen's  wives to sell the fish fresh off the boat. These boats had been very popular until 1894, when a large storm destroyed or damaged almost all of the boats parked on the beach, circa 1920. The damage was so extensive that the government was forced to create a harbor 10 years later and the fishing boats were no longer needed.

Our painting is stylistically typical of Mesdag's early work in the 1870s. There is meticulously depicted volume of sky and dynamic, yet still calm, waves of the sea rendered in great detail.  By the late 1870s after winning various prizes and exhibiting at countless exhibitions, he began painting more loosely and increased his production.

Being the entrepreneur that Mesdag was, he created one of the most interesting paintings together with fellow Hague School painters Bernard Blommers (1845-1914), Théophile de Bock (1851-1904), George Hendrik Breitner (1857-1923) and his wife Sientje van Houten. The painting was a large panorama project of Scheveningen beach in 1880-1881; spanning 120 meters wide and 14 meter high, whereby the visitor could stand in the center of the painting, a sort of trompe l'oeil vista from one of the dunes in Scheveningen with a 360 degrees view, including The Hague, the dunes and the beach. The painting depicts a remarkable image of Scheveningen at that time, and like our painting shows how these bomschuiten were used in daily life.