To appreciate the Dutch genius in marine art, one need not look further than the seascapes of Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831–1915). The Kunstmuseum in The Hague says of the artist (pictured above in his studio in 1903): “Mesdag was unequalled in his ability to produce atmospheric canvases depicting changing weather conditions on the North Sea coast at Scheveningen and the various activities of the fishing community that lived there.” It was entirely fitting that one of Mesdag’s Schevenigen paintings was presented to President Harry Truman on 26th July 1946 as a gift from the people of Holland for US support during World War II. The man was exceptionally talented, a towering figure in the Hague School of artists.
Evening time at sea, 1870 oil on canvas
Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831–1915) / Image courtesy of Europeana Collections
In this splendid piece, Mesdag conveys a sense of complete calm with skilful composition and a calibrated rendering of light. The fishing boats and the sea are at rest. Yet, there is a suggestion of movement as the setting sun subtly changes the colour of the clouds from luminous white to shades of grey.
Bomschuiten in the Surf, Scheveningen, undated oil on canvas
Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831–1915) / Image courtesy of The Athenaeum
Mesdag’s use of vigorous brushstrokes and varied tones of brown and orange creates a feeling of energy and exhilaration. Sea and sky are unified by turbulence. Yet, both fishermen and the sea birds seem to weave themselves wonderfully into this tapestry of nature.
Fishing Pinks in Breaking Waves (original title in Dutch: Pinken in de branding), 1885 oil on canvas
Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831–1915) / Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Like his fellow Dutch artist, Vincent van Gogh, Mesdag was fascinated with the beauty of the sea as well the lives of fishermen and their boats. The “pinks” in the title refers to a type of small, flat-bottomed vessel. The Rijksmuseum says about these boats and Mesdag’s painting: “These vessels had a flat bottom that allowed them to be hauled up onto the beach. Fishing Pinks in Breaking Waves depicts the moment when the new catch is being distributed. With its horizontal format and rugged brushwork, Mesdag transformed an everyday scene into a monumental composition…”
In Danger, circa-1895 oil on canvas
Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831–1915) / Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum of Art
The sky in Mesdag’s dramatic painting occupies only a sixth of the height of the canvas and is rendered in almost the same colours as the sea. This creates a powerful image of a vast raging sea in which a fishing boat is mercilessly tossed around.
Mesdag’s most ambitious and impressive work is a cylindrical panoroma of the fishing village of Scheveningen. Housed in a specially designed building in The Hague, the mammoth painting is about 120 metres (394 feet) in circumference. In comparison, Picasso’s mural Guernica measures only 3.49 metres (11 ft 5 in) tall and 7.76 meters (25 ft 6 in) wide.
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