AN INTRODUCTION TO THE HAGUE SCHOOL BY JOHN SILLEVIS
A surprisingly large number of writers have taken the team spirit of the Hague School for granted, regarding this consensus not as a short-lived phenomenon but something that survived for a lenghty period. To be sure, it was a tight-knit group - especially for a group of artists. The migration to The Hague commenced in the late 1860s. Mesdag was one of the first; in 1869 he moved into a house on the Laan van Meerdervoort, near the road to Scheveningen (fig. a; lot 177).
Jacob Maris returned to The Hague after the family's experiences in Paris in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the ensuing battles on the barricades during the Commune uprising (fig. b; lot 176). In 1871 he found quiet quarters on the Noord-West Binnensingel with a view of a windmill, which he was often to paint. That same year Jozef Israëls came to The Hague, as did Anton Mauve. Willem Maris, Johannes Bosboom, and Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch had always lived there. No common impulse seems to have drawn all these painters to The Hague.
For Mesdag the move marked the end of his student days in Brussels, for Maris the break with his Paris dealers, who would not let him paint what he wanted. Jozef Israëls had already embarked on an international career in the 1860s, when people started to notice the work he sent to international exhibitions. He may have been persuaded to come to The Hague by Mesdag, who like himself came from Groningen. The story goes that they used to play marbles together as boys in Groningen - a nice after-dinner anecdote but probably unfounded. Even so, friendship played an important role in the group of Hague School painters. It was apparently understood that whenever one of them was invited to take part in a major exhibition abroad, he would arrange for his friends to submit work too. The outside world was thus presented with a picture of a united aristic and stylistic front.
The term The Hague School was coined in 1875 by the critic J. van Santen Kolff in a lengthy article in De Banier magazine, prompted by the Triennial Exhibition of Living Masters, which was held in the Hague Academy of Drawing. Among the many works by established painters, Van Santen Kolff observed a new, realistic tendency:
"The seat of the said School, its headquarters, its leaders and general staff, are in The Hague, but there are believers and diligent disciples in other towns too (Jozef Neuhuys in Amsterdam, for instance). It is a strange quirk of fate that a city noted for its rigid conservatism in the field of music... should be the cradle of a new, ultra-radical movement in painting, so that we are justified in speaking of a "Hague School," just as we speak of a "Düsseldorf,""Weimar," or "Munich School", of the "école de Tervueren," etc.... This new way of seeing and depicting things constitutes a veritable iconoclasm in painting. What is to become of, say, the delicate, accomplished brushwork and pretty colors of a Gudin and a Meyer or the Indian ink waves of a Schotel, when we have learned to see the beauty of the broad "touche," the impressive truth and powerful tone of a Mesdag?... One is immediately struck by a further distinctive characteristic of the representatives of this direction. Their chief objective is to convey mood; tone takes precedence above color. This accounts for their almost exclusive preference for so-called "bad weather" effects... Expressive lighting is poorly served, or even completely spurned. The poetry of gris, on the other hand, is revealed as never before. In this gray mood dwells the ideal of the tonal nuances they seek, and we must admiringly acknowledge their fine feeling for depicting things of which we had no notion before. Mauve, Sadée, Israels, Artz... knights in defense of gray! The reign of gray has dawned for them... this is true realism of the healthiest kind. It is my firm conviction that sooner or later our landscape and marine painters will all have to adopt this course if they are to remain creative in the spirit of our times."
This gray tonality was to become one of the characteristics of the Hague School. Gerard Bilders had been seeking something of the kind in his own work, but on visiting the National Exhibition in Brussels with his father in 18.0, he finally found what he had been looking for: a colored gray tonality or, as he himself put it: "the impression of a fragrant, warm gray." He also spoke of "the sentiment of gray" that he encoutered in the exhibitions by Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Narcisse Diaz, Jules Dupré, Jean-François Millet, Théodore Rousseau, and Constant Troyon. The muted tones and warm gray that Gerard Bilders had certainly discussed with his friends in Oosterbeek found its way into the work of the young Hague School painters.
Matthijs Maris adopted the Barbizon colors, as did his brother Willem and Anton Mauve. Conservative critics accused them of seeing things through "gray spectacles"; Mauve was actually advised to beware all forms of innovation. In 1863 the critic of the Algemeen Handelsblad , reviewing the Exhibition of Living Masters held that year in the artists' society Arti et Amicitiae in Amsterdam, had this to say about Mauve: "A few months ago he seemed to be pursuing his own path, and now he apparently sees everything through the spectacles of the painter Maris. Danger!... Formerly, Mauve saw nature in warm, vivid colors, but now everything seems to be hung in mourning crepe for him." This reproach was to dog Mauve and the Hague School, which was occasionally referred to as "the gray school." Looking back, Mauve once said: "If my paintings are gray, they are not good; if people spoke of a silver school, my efforts would be deemed better." (fig. c; lot 147).
The painters of the Hague School conducted some of their artistic discussions as members of Pulchri Studio. Bosboom, Roelofs, and J.H. Weissenbruch were among the first to join this society, which was founded in 1847. Bosboom was in fact one of the first members of the board. The purpose of the group was to enable its members to practice life drawing and to hold weekly meetings at which to view and discuss one another's work. The society consisted - and still does, incidentally - of artists and amateurs; the latter are now called club members.
The name Pulchri Studio (Latin for "for the study of beauty") conformed with the nineteenth-century custom of using mottos to denote associations of artists. Leiden has its Ars Aemula Naturae, Amsterdam its Arti et Amicitiae (known as Arti for short, a sister institution of Pulchri), Dordrecht its Pictura, and in The Hague, in addition to Pulchri, there is a smaller club called Arti et Industriae. There is every justification for speaking of an exceptionally vegorous Dutch tradition. All these associations are direct or indirect descendants of the art academies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries-societies of specialists who convened to discuss their profession and the latest developments. Holland would not be Holland if conviviality were not high on the agenda of such gatherings. This aspect was particularly well developed in Pulchri, especially in the nineteenth century. The artists were celebrated for the tasteful tableaux-vivants they staged at their annual feasts; the costumes were not rented, but their own creations.
Most important, though, were the discussions of each other's work , especially during the period when Pulchri Studio did not have its own exhibition space. During these years, discussions were a substitute for the society's later frequent exhibitions; the sole opportunity modern artists had to present their latest work to the public was at the Exhibition of Living Masters, which were held only every two or three years.
In February 1882 Vincent van Gogh attended a discussion at Pulchri to which Johannes Bosboom and Gerke Henkes had brought some of their sketches and drawings. Blommers (fig. d; lot 160) suggested that Van Gogh - although not a member - should prepare a discussion on his collection of English and French wood engravings. The idea appealed to Vincent, who wrote to his brother that he had enough material to fill two evenings. Unfortunately, Blommers's suggestion failed to meet with the board's approval.
Several painters of the Hague School served on the board of Pulchri Studio, so that the society became a bastion of the school for may years. Bosboom was chairman from 1852 to 1853, Jozef Israëls from 1875 to 1878, and Mesdag from 1889 to 1907. Jacob and Willem Maris, Mauve, Roelofs, and Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch also held various offices or were in charge of the drawing studio, discussions, or social events.
Reproduced from the exhibition catalogue Dutch Drawings from the Age of Van Gogh from the Collection of the Haags Gemeentemuseum, Cincinnati 1992, with kind permission of the author