Who was Henrik Willem Mesdag?

Henrik Willem Mesdag (1831-1915) was a Dutch painter and art collector from the city of Groningen, known primarily for his oil paintings of maritime scenes and his personal collection of art, which lives on in the form of the modern Mesdag Museum in The Hague.

Mesdag's Life

Born into an upper-middle class lifestyle, Mesdag was the third son of a banker. His fortunate birth allowed for tutoring in the arts at a young age; he received lessons as a child and teenager from Cornelis Bernardus Buijis (1808-1872)and Johannes Hinderikus Egenberger (1822-1897), young and moderately skilled but obscure artists of the era who worked primarily in landscapes and still lifes that were popular at the time. Despite his silver spoon upbringing, Mesdag's early life was not devoid of tragedy and his mother died when he was only four years old. How this affected him is not known and little else seems to be known about his childhood years. Still, one can imagine that life for someone with a little wealth in a fairly successful 19th century colonial trade power was both decadent and conservative; there can be little doubt that the imperial and maritime traditions of the Netherlands likely influenced Mesdag towards his eventual subject matter.

This elaborate and expensive induction into the world of Dutch art was however put on hold by Mesdag as soon as he became a man. Instead of capitalizing on his specialized education, he instead chose to follow in the footsteps of his father and began working for him at the bank at the age of 19. He continued to draw only as a bourgeois hobby and remained faithfully at the bank for 16 years. What Mesdag could have or would have become had he simply struck out as an artist as a youth is unknown; it seems likely he had the skills to succeed but not necessarily the confidence.

One of the only major developments in his life during this time comes in 1856, when he marries Sina van Houten, also known as Sientje. Mesdag has only one child with her (Nicolaas van Mesdag) but the more relevant part of their marriage is that Sientje's father happens to be a very wealthy mill owner. When he dies in 1866, he leaves his son-in-law a hefty inheritance that grants him and his wife financial independence for the rest of their lives. Mesdag, who prepared for this day for 5 years by sharpening his skills as a part-time art student at the University of Groningen, promptly drops his life as a banker and becomes a full-time painter at the age of 35. He then moves to Brussels to begin his career in earnest.

It is during this time in Brussels that Mesdag is said to have “fallen in love with the sea” during a summer spent on the nearby island of Norderney. In reality, as I have already mentioned, it is entirely possible that Mesdag was already enamored with nautical topics but, regardless of origin, there is no doubt whatsoever that Mesdag had a certain passion for the ocean and his highly detailed and clever depictions of water and weather in his art attest to his obsession. Though sometimes stereotyped as a bit of a one trick pony, Mesdag, like Degas, was really just an artist whose ideas became obsolete with the invention of photography. Bringing the shore to life before one could simply snap a photo of it was a feat. Doing so with the talent and penchant for atmosphere that Mesdag accomplished was remarkable.

To credit it all to talent is of course a grievous mistake. Mesdag famously practiced constantly, painting the sea in all conditions and at every hour of the day, usually on site. His goal was always to replicate a moment in time, similar indeed to the work of photographers who would soon make his work obsolete.

Mesdag's Works

Mesdag's paintings are not particularly enjoyable to the modern viewer. They are tedious in terms of subject matter and many of them seem quaint or stodgy, as many Dutch paintings from Mesdag's era do. Part of this is a reflection of Mesdag himself who painted simply to distance himself from the obligations and duties of being a banker and later escape grief over the death of his only son but it is also related to Mesdag's membership in the highly popular Hague School, which strongly emphasized landscapes and the use of gray tones. Because of this movement's prominence and aesthetic preferences both Mesdag and Sientje would become highly decorated and respected members of the arts community in the Netherlands.

What there is to enjoy about Mesdag's art is primarily the workmanship. Mesdag clearly took painstaking measures to preserve realism in his work and it shows in the careful detail he commits to waves and the surf. One of Mesdag's earliest award winning works, Les Brisants De La Mer Du Nord, is iconic of this and is simply a seascape of the surf rolling through the ocean beneath smothering gray sky. Though he did paint cheerier scenes by the ocean, sometimes of ships being loaded or unloaded or even of seaside cottages, his most impressive works almost always involve turbulent water and cloudy skies. In these scenes it is hard not to attach the sometimes tragic context of Mesdag's life.


In his later life Mesdag became more and more of an institution in the Dutch art scene. His collection grew with age and in 1903, after receiving several major awards from the Dutch Government and being elected chairman of the locally prestigious Pulchri studio in Amsterdam, he donated his entire collection and the sizable wing of his home it was housed in to the state. They then named him director of the the new Mesdag Museum, which he would continue to manage for the rest of his life. Henrik Willem Mesdag died as the result of a protracted illness on the 10th of July 1915 at the age of 74, outliving his beloved Sientje by 6 years. The Pulchri Studio and Mesdag Museum continue to operate to this day.

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