Born in Groningen in the north of Holland in 1831, the son of a successful stockbroker and banker, Hendrik Willem Mesdag grew up in affluent surroundings. Although his parents encouraged his interest in art they never intended for him to pursue an artistic career. In 1851, he joined his father’s firm and in 1856 he married Sientje van Houten, a girl from a local patrician family. Sientje inherited a substantial fortune in 1866 and it was this, along with her interest in the arts, which allowed Hendrik to devote himself fully to painting. In the summer of 1866, Mesdag and his wife traveled to Oosterbeek, a popular artist’s colony and there he met and was influenced by artists such as Johannes Bilders and Willem Roeloefs. On the advice of his cousin, Lawrence Alma Tadema, Mesdag studied with Willem Roelofs and under his guidance developed a broad but distinctive style of painting. While in Brussels, he also met the Belgian seascape painters Paul Jean Clays and Louis Artan, both of whom played an important role in his development.
Mesdag resolved to become a painter of seascapes and this subject matter would form the basis of his oeuvre for the remainder of his career. He was determined to settle near the sea in order to be able to observe the hard-working fishermen on a daily basis. In 1869, he moved from Brussels to The Hague, where he not only purchased a house in the center of town, but also rented a room along the beach in the nearby fishing village of Scheveningen. This move would transform his later artistic development.
Mesdag soon became the leading artist of The Hague School; he was president of the Pulchri Studio, the center of the movement, for seventeen years. In 1908, G. H. Marius commented, ‘Hendrik Willem Mesdag came, with his direct and realistic point of view, to surprise the world with the fact that with the unbiased painting of the sea, straight from nature, the aspects of the North Sea coast were now for the first time represented as they appeared before our eyes’ (G. H. Marius, Dutch Painters of the 19th Century, Suffolk, 1908, p. 156). Marius realized that Mesdag’s broad touch, impressive truth and tonal power differed significantly from the highly finished and minutely detailed seascapes of romantic painters of that time. Mesdag’s vigorous brushwork and ‘real’ seas were invariably seen as proof that his paintings possessed truth and immediacy.
As with J. M. W. Turner (fig. 1) before him and Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet (figs. 2, 3) after, Mesdag concentrated in his later work on capturing the essence of the light and air of sea and sky. In Marine, the artist has moved on from his earlier concentration on choppy seas and a more narrative based-composition, and has focused on tonal harmonies created from soft hues of blue, lavender, yellow, gold and grey in order to capture the glow of light on water. His technique of capturing the reflection of the sun on the water demonstrates Mesdag’s formidable ability to depict atmospheric effects.
Mesdag’s international career was established in 1870, when his Les brisants de la mer du nord won a gold medal at the Paris Salon, where it was hung next to Gustave Courbet’s La vague. This cemented his reputation as a painter of seascapes, and the artist gained recognition in both Holland and abroad. Mesdag’s paintings resonated strongly with collectors in the United States and his work was represented in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where it was very well received. The newly rich American collectors of the last quarter of the 19th century eagerly purchased his paintings, and they remain the core of many collections in the United States today.