During the 1870s the work of a group of artists that came together in the Pulchri Studio in Den Haag (The Hague) began to be seen as a renaissance of the achievements of Dutch painting in the seventeenth century, also known as the Golden Age. Before this time painting in Den Haag had no distinct character or school of its own, apart from the painters who worked for the Court of the House of Orange. The name “Hague School” was first used by art critic Van Santen Kolff, who used the phrases "a new way of seeing and depicting things", "intent to convey mood, tone takes precedence over color", "almost exclusive preference for so-called 'bad weather' effects", and "gray mood" (-“De Banier”, 1875). The reason especially Den Haag became the center of the new school, was that in contrast to industrial cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam, Den Haag had maintained its semi-rural character. Artists drew their inspiration from the nearby coasts of Scheveningen and Katwijk, and from the polders, woods and dunes that surrounded Den Haag.

The Hague School consists of four generations of painters, but the first two generations are considered most important. Johannes Bosboom, Jozef Israels, Willem Roelofs and Jan Hendrik Weissenbruch belonged to the first generation. The second generation comprised Gerard Bilders, Bernard Blommers, Paul Gabriel, the brothers Maris (Jacob, Matthijs and Willem), Anton Mauve, Hendrik Willem Mesdag and Albert Neuhuys. Later generations comprised Teophile de Bock, Willem Bastiaan Tholen, George Hendrik Breitner, Herman Johannes van der Weele and Willem de Zwart. Not every artist came from Den Haag, though all artists eventually settled there. Bosboom, Weissenbruch, the three Maris brothers and Blommers had lived in Den Haag since childhood, and Bilders and Roelofs did part of their training there. Israels, one of the leading members of the School, made his name and attracted his first followers in Amsterdam. Mauve and Gabriel had originally come from Haarlem. Mesdag (who was born in Groningen) came to Den Haag after studying in Brussels. Most artists already knew each other to some extent, as many of the younger artists had met at Oosterbeek, where they had gone to study landscape, and others had met each other in Barbizon.

The period between 1870 and 1885 is considered the School’s gray period (this is why the Hague School is also known as the Gray School). Artists restricted themselves to the use of somber colors, mostly brown and gray. After 1880 they gradually introduced more colors to their works. Weissenbruch and Israels created some of their finest work in this later period. By this time the School’s fame was at its height, but the united front of the Hague School began to crumble. Not much later Israels joined George Hendrik Breitner’s group of young impressionists, who called themselves the “Eighties Movement”. Weissenbruch and Roelofs found Den Haag to be growing too fast and retreated to the polders.

After the First World War the reputation of the Hague School declined and the names of such artists as Israels, Johan Maris and Mauve were relegated to the footnotes of art history. Outside the Netherlands their names meant something only to those who delved into the origins of Vincent van Gogh or Piet Mondrian. A revival was evident in the second half of the twentieth century. In 1965 Jos de Gruyter organized a large retrospective exhibition in the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag (municipal museum Den Haag). In 1983 a new exposition, organized by Ronald de Leeuw (director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam) was held in the Grand Palais in Paris and in the Royal Academy in London. More expositions throughout Europe followed in the eighties and nineties. Work of the Hague School can be found in Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam) and the National Gallery in Washington. Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, however, still has the largest collection.

Inspiration and techniques

Like their seventeenth-century predecessors, Hague School artists drew their inspiration from the flat polder landscape and the everyday lives of peasants and fishermen. Main difference between the Barbizon and the Hague School was the romantic nostalgia of the Hague School, that was absent in the works of Barbizon School artists. The style that Hague School artists applied was derived from French impressionism. Each of the Hague School artists claimed an own specialty. Bosboom for example, painted church interiors, while Israels and his close followers Artz, Sadee, Neuhuys and Blommers all specialized in figure paintings and interiors showing the life of the fishing communities. Gabriel, Mauve and the brothers Maris founded a new landscape art that became known as the “Dutch Barbizon”. Their art was based on a close study of nature in the area around Oosterbeek. Roelofs started by painting Romantic wooded landscapes but then turned to painting cattle, as did his younger colleagues Mauve and Willem Maris. As painters of land- and townscapes, Jacob Maris and Weissenbruch were the most versatile.

Hague School artists had a preference for placing their motifs in the center of their paintings, which gave them a certain static quality. They reduced subsidiary details to a minimum in their attempt to achieve an even starker simplicity so that their subjects merged with the surrounding landscape, but appeared to have been isolated from the rest of the world. The gray palette of the School also contributes to this alienation.

The work of Hague School artists stands out not so much for its themes, which are notable more for their ordinariness, but for its great pictorial beauty. The quality of their work stems from their integrity, and in conjunction with techniques derived from the best Dutch and French traditions this caused them to find a great admirer and follower in Vincent van Gogh.