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The Mesdag Museum

( Originally Published 1925 )



When we were last at The Hague the Mesdag Museum had just opened (1903). There was no catalogue, and while the nature of this great gift to the city was felt it was not until a second visit (in 1909) that its extraordinary value was realised. The catalogue numbers three hundred and forty-four pictures by modern artists, and there is also a valuable collection of objects of art, bronzes, pottery, furniture, and tapestries. Philip Zilcken (a well-known Dutch etcher) in his introduction calls attention to the rare quality of the Mesdag Museum and tells us that Mr. and Mrs. Mesdag van Houten bought for their own pleasure without any thought of forming a gallery for the Dutch nation. That came later. W. H. Mesdag is the well-known marine painter whose paintings may be seen in almost every gallery on the Continent. A native of Groningen (1831), he studied under Roelofs and while in Brussels lived with his relative, Alma-Tadema; the latter is a Frieslander. Mesdag excels in marines, painting great sweep of waters with breadth and simplicity. His palette is cool and restrained, his rhythmic sense well developed, and his feeling for outdoors truly Dutch. He belongs to the line of the classic Dutch marinists, to Van der Velde, Backhuizen, and Van Goyen. His wife, a woman of charm and culture, died in the spring of last year. She signed her work S. Mesdag van Houten. Her gift lies in the delineation of forest views, interiors, portraits, and still-life. Her colour is deep and rich.

A cursory walk around the various rooms on the Laan van Meerdervoort impresses one with this idea: with what envy must any curator of any museum in the world study this collection. Mesdag began gathering his treasures at a time when the Barbizon school was hardly known; when a hundred other painters had not been tempted by the dealers into overproduction; when, in a word, fancy prices were not dreamed of. The Alma-Tademas are among his best, little as we admire his vital marbles and lifeless humans. An early portrait of his wife is here. Bastien-Lepage has a preparatory sketch for Les Foins. Indeed, the Mesdag Museum is rich in frottis, painted-in pictures, by such men as Rousseau, Daubigny, Diaz, Vollon, Millet, Dupr¢. As we admire the etchings of Mari Bauer, it was a new pleasure to see half a dozen of his paintings, chiefly scenes in the Orient. The same misty, fantastic quality is present; he manipulates his colour, thinly laid on, as if it were some sort of plastic smoke. Impressionistic as are these canvases, there is a subdued splendor in them all. Bauer feels the East. His etchings recall Rembrandt's line; but his paintings are miles away in sentiment and handling. Bisschop (1828—1904) is represented by a fine still-life, and among the various Blommers is one with children playing in the water and on the sands; vividly seized, this example.

The late Théophile de Bock was an interpreter of nature and his brush-work was fat and rich. His work is well known in America and gains in value every day (he died in 1904). There are fourteen specimens here of his best period. The Emile Bretons are early and therefore different from his commercial productions. Of the Curets, twelve in number, we did not see an insignificant one, not a weak one. The famous Early Morning and View at Villeneuve-lès-Avignon are hung. The first depicts a group of trees; to the right a narrow stream in which is reflected a cloudless sky. In the centre two women in white caps. The second is more elaborate in composition. The middle distance is occupied by picturesque buildings dating probably from the Middle Ages. In the fore-ground four persons are under the shadow of some trees. An unusual scheme for Corot. His well-known characteristics are present in the dozen; the tremulous leafage, the bright, pure light, the Italian softness. And what do you say to a half-dozen Courbets, all of his strong period, landscapes, still-life, a nude study, a dead roe, a sunlit path, and a lake scene! Good Courbets are not numerous, and these are good. The nude is a woman recumbent upon draperies. The pate is heavy but vital, the flesh tones glowing, and the silhouette firm, yet delicate. The portrait of the artist by himself is massive. It was probably painted in Ste. Pélagie.

Coutures two, twenty-five Daubignys, and one of his son Karl. Daubigny the elder is here in all his manners, dark pictures with big foregrounds, intimate bits of wooded interiors, sand-hills, streamlets, moonlights, coast scenes, evening effects, sunsets at sea, twilights, sheep, broken rocks, and a study in crayon.

Decamps and Delacroix come next in order. There are three of the former, among the rest his Poacher, and three of Delacroix, one a portrait of himself. Seven of Diaz, painted when his colour was most sonorous and brilliant, are here, with a study of an undraped female figure. La Mare is a sunlight effect in the forest of Fontainebleau. Dupré has seven to his account, several of great tonal beauty. The one Fortuny is an elaborate etching of his Anchorite. The Josef Israels are strong. Jacque pigs and sheep; Khnkenberg's view of the Binnenhof; Mancini's bewildering chromatic blurs and sensuously rich gamut, and seventeen in number. This painter is seldom encountered in America. He should be better known; while his ideas are not particularly significant he is colourist for colour's sake, as was Monticelli. The three brothers Maris, Jakob, Willem, and Matthys (the latter living in London), are to be seen here in unexampled states. Mauve, too, with fourteen pictures. Both the Mesdags, Taco Mesdag, a brother and his wife are present. Also Ter Meulen, a gifted Dutch artist. We have seldom seen better George Michels. The MonticeIli up-stairs is an unusual subject. It is a mountain path in the south of France. The sun is dis-appearing behind a cluster of trees. Rocks in the foreground. The scheme of colour is low for Monticelli, the forms sharply accented. He could see line when he wished. The smaller example is an interior, as rich as Monticelli knew how to lay the colours on.

Seven Millets, one the large exhibition picture Hagar and Ishmael, another the wonderful Resting Vintager. Alone these Millets would cause a sensation if exhibited elsewhere. The Hagar seems a trifle too rhetorical for the simple-minded painter. Brown predominates in the colour scale, the composition is rather conventional, an echo, perhaps, of the artist's Delaroche apprenticeship, but the Vintager is a masterpiece. Seated among the vines in the blaze of the sun, he is resting and has removed his heavy sabots. The relaxed attitude after arduous labour is wonderfully expressed. The atmosphere indicates stifling sultriness.

Ricard, Roelofs, Théodore Rousseau — halt! There are twelve of this French master, dramatic and rich. Descente des Vaches dans le Jura is the celebrated canvas refused at the Salon, 1834. But it is too bituminous in parts. A greater composition, though only a drawing, is Les grands chênes du vieux Bas-Bréau. Four large trees illumined by sun-rays. Two Segantinis, a drawing in chalk and pastel; Storm Van's Gravesande; seven Troyons, one, Le retour du Marché, a master-piece; Vollon, still-life, fish, ivory goblets, violets; Weissenbruchs; Zilcken etchings and two De Zwarts. There is old Rozenburg pottery, de-signed by Colenbrander, scarce today; Dutch and Gothic brass, Oriental portières and brass, old Delft, Japanese armour, various weapons and lanterns, Gobelin tapestry, carved furniture, Dutch and Scandinavian, and a magnificent assortment of Satsuma pottery, émail cloisonné, Japanese bronzes, Persian pottery, Spanish brasses, majolica and bronzes and sculptures by Mattos, Constantin, Meunier, and Van Wijk — the list fills a pamphlet. Next door is the studio of the aged Mesdag, a hale old Dutchman who paints daily and looks forward to seeing his ninety years. In Holland octogenarians are not few. The climate is propitious; above all, the absence of hurry and worry. To see The Hague without visiting this collection would be a regrettable omission.

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