Panorama Mesdag is a panoramic painting of the surroundings of Scheveningen, a fishing port close to The Hague, The Netherlands. The painting was created by the Dutch artist Hendrik Willem Mesdag in 1881.

Panoramic paintings are "paintings without borders"; they give a 360 degree trompe l'oeil of a landscape, city, or historical event. This style of painting dates back to the end of the 18th century and became highly popular at the end of the 19th century. Common themes for panoramic paintings include battle scenes (The battle of Waterloo was painted many times), naval wars, biblical scenes, and landscapes from countries far abroad. These panoramic scenes allowed spectators to get a glimpse of Egypt, India or the city of Jeruzalem without a long and arduous travel. At the end of the 19th century, many cities throughout Europe had rotundas for the display of panoramic paintings. All rotundas had more or less standardized dimensions, which allowed for the exchange of the panoramic paintings. However, around 1900 this form of art was no longer fashionable due to the increasing popularity of film and photography.

In 1880, the Société Anonyme du Panorama de la Haye was founded in Brussels, an important center for panoramic painting. The goal of this foundation was the development of a sea panorama of the surroundings of The Hague. The foundation approached the painter Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831-1915) who had achieved international recognition for his naval works and paintings of the beach of Scheveningen. Mesdag also knew several influential painters in Belgium (including his cousin* Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema) who may have helped him to obtain the assignment.

Mesdag accepted the assignment for a generous salary. Because of his fame, he also obtained the liberty of choosing the location that was to be portrayed, and he was allowed to select several associates for the project. Not everyone was pleased that Mesdag accepted the work. For instance, Pulchri the leading artists society of the Hague School of which Mesdag was a member (and later chairman) considered panoramic painting an inferior form of art, since it was merely trying to "copy reality". Nevertheless, the project moved forward. Mesdag selected a rather controversial location for his work: Seinpostduin, a place that was recently excavated for the construction of a restaurant to attract more tourism to the beach-- this plan was heavily criticized by painters of the Hague School. As a result, Panorama Mesdag offers us an interesting view on Scheveningen before tourism and large-scale fishery took over.

Mesdag starts his work in April 1881. Painting the panorama was a race against the clock, since it was to be opened already in August, 1881. This job was far too big for Mesdag to do by himself; he hired his wife, the painter Sientje Mesdag-van Houten, George Hendrik Breitner, Theophile de Bock, B.J. Blommers and A. Nijberck to assist him. Mesdag painted the beach and the "bommen", the local fishing boats. The other painters were assigned to various tasks of the project. Especially Breitner and his wife were major contributors to the painting. An interesting detail: Mesdag's wife Sientje is portrayed in the panorama sitting on the beach, behind her easel.

On August 1, 1881 the panorama is opened to the public. The work was praised by the general audience and even the initially sceptical artists society Pulchri. Unfortunately, the entrance fee for the work proved to be too high and already in 1885 the foundation of the Panorama Mesdag was close to bankrupcy. On May 3 1886, Mesdag buys his own work at an auction and this may be the single reason that the panorama still exists today.

The Panorama Mesdag is one of the largest and finest surviving panoramas. The circular painting has an area of 1680 m2 (18000 ft2), a height of 14 m (46 ft), and a circumference of 120 m (394 ft). You enter the panorama via a narrow, circular staircase in the center. Once you are inside the panorama, you are taken back 120 years in time. The illusion is almost perfect.

Panorama Mesdag
Zeestraat 65
The Hague, The Netherlands

*My Dutch source mentions "neef", which is unfortunately an ambiguous word for either cousin or nephew. But since Alma-Tadema and Mesdag were only 5 years apart in age, I am assuming they were cousins. Can anyone confirm this?

factual sources:
  • - The official Panorama Mesdag Website. You can download a really cool screensaver of the panorama!
  • - Mesdag Documentation Society
  • - cool interactive views of the panorama
  • Ad van der Blom, Ernest Kurpershoek, Claudia Thunnissen, Nederlandse Schilderkunst, Icob (1997).

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