Hendrik Willem Mesdag was born in Groningen into a Mennonite family of grain merchants and bankers. He seemed destined for a career in banking. In 1856 he married Sientje van Houten, who was later to take up painting as well. An inheritance enabled Mesdag to devote himself entirely to art. His cousin Laurens Alma Tadema introduced him to the landscape painter Willem Roelofs in Antwerp, with whom he studied for a time. His Brisants de la Mer du Nord earned him a gold medal at the 1870 Paris Salon, immediately establishing his reputation. His most important work in this field is the famous Panorama from a vantage point on the Seinpost Dune at Scheveningen, which he painted in 1881.
Mesdag was a fanatic art collector in his age. His collection had grown to such an extent by 1887 that he built a special museum for it adjoining his house in The Hague. It was donated to the Dutch state in 1903 together with its contents of more than 360 paintings and drawings. Roughly half the works were by his contemparies of the Hague School, while most of the rest are by artists of the School of Barbizon and French Realists. It has been hailed as the most important Barbizon collection outside France. He was a central figure in the Hague artistic circles, and became chairman and later honorary chairman of the Pulchri Studio art society (cf. F. Leeman and H. Pennock, Museum Mesdag, catalogue of Painting and Drawings, Zwolle 1996). At the Salon of 1887 his Soleil Couchant was acquired for the Musée du Luxembourg, Paris (now Musée d'Orsay).
Mesdag painted a series of large atmospheric canvasses between 1887-1894. He repeatedly painted the motif of a sunset or a summer evening in this period. Between 1916-1926 the arthistorian Prof.dr. W. Martin and his students recorded a card-index on 1650 works by Mesdag, that had appeared in exhibitions until 1918. Because Mesdag made use of the same title more than once (Coucher de Soleil); it is therefore difficult to identify his work with great certainty. Based on Martin's card-index systems, the present lot is recorded in J. Poort's Oeuvrecatalogus as whereabouts unknown with the following description:
"Les bateaux de pêche se sont disséminés au large; la mer est légèrement agilée et, profitant de la marée basse, des matelots relèvent leurs filets ou accrochent l'ancre. Les mâtures se détachent sur le ciel orangé qui s'étend au dessus de cette surface mollement bercée. Le soleil est sur le point de se noyer dans la mer. Plus loin, d'autres barques, dissolvant presque dans les buées."
The present lot may well be identical with Coucher de Soleil inv.no. 23745 in the sales lists of Goupil & Cie., The Hague (recorded at the R.K.D., The Hague). Mesdag not only purchased works for his collection at Goupil's but also sold the main part of his own work through them. According to the sales lists Coucher de Soleil inv.no. 23745 was acquired on December 28th 1894 directly from the artist for Nlg. 2.000,- and sold to E. Pierson Beebe, August 30th 1897, Boston for the amount of Dfl. 2.800,-; further proof of the fact that Mesdag was, together with Jozef Israels, amongst the best paid artists of his age.
Now that the present lot has been re-discovered - after hundred years in obscurity - it can be ranked among Mesdag's finest works and added to his already well-documented oeuvre.
See colour illustration