Two Dutch museums currently have exhibitions focusing on watercolours. In Haarlem, the Teylers’ museum small exhibition covers the development of Dutch watercolours. In The Hague, the Mesdag Collection focuses on an important 19th century collector and his collection of watercolours.
The Hague has two museums linked to the Dutch painter and collector Willem Mesdag. There is the interesting Panorama Mesdag, created by Willem Mesdag together with his artists friends including his wife Sientje (Sina Mesdag- van Houten). At this museum, visitors can still see the Panorama showing 19th century Scheveningen beach, as well as temporary exhibitions.
The other museum, formerly known as the Mesdag Museum but now called the Mesdag Collection, comprises the former home of the Dutch couple and the museum they created. Their house and museum lie next to each other and are interconnected. The Mesdags used the museum to show off their own works, as well as the art they collected. The Mesdag Collection in The Hague is now an annexe of and managed by the Amsterdam Vincent van Gogh museum.
The Mesdag Collection has a permanent exhibition in one wing. Several rooms in the other wing have been restored to their former 19th century glory. Temporary exhibitions are usually on show in these rooms.
When Willem and his wife inherited a large sum of money, he was able to quit his career as a banker and focus on painting. They travelled to Brussels, where he not only took drawing and painting lessons but also networked and noticed the importance of artists societies.
Back in The Hague, Willem and Sientje became involved in setting up similar societies to help promote art and organise regular exhibitions. He and his wife not only used these platforms to promote their own works. As collectors of contemporary art, they also bought works at these exhibitions.
Among the works they collected were water-colours and sketches by Lourens (Lawrence) Alma Tadema. He was related to the couple and the current exhibition contains works by him. The exhibition also shows works by artists the couple knew from Brussels, as well as works they bought.
On the landing of the house, there is a photo of Sientje working on one of her own water-colours. For when the couple’s only child died, Sientje took up drawing and painting. She bought art independently from her husband.
The Teylers’ exhibition and this one, contain watercolours of extremely high quality. Some watercolours are as good as, or even better than oil paintings. The sums the Mesdags paid for a few watercolours are astronomical. But bills and letters show, the two of them did not hesitate to haggle, or buy at much reduced prices when given a chance.
That artists societies were not all about painting and hard work becomes clear from at least one caricature. It shows the members at a copious dinner, a few definitely intoxicated by alcohol or their own importance. The society’s cash-box stands prominently on the dinner table.
This cash-box is part of the exhibition, as are leafs from a liber amicorum full of water colours by friends of the couple. This book was a gift from their friends on one of the couple’s wedding anniversary.
The subject of the various watercolours on show range from a truly beautiful painting of a New Foundlander’s head, whose name is actually known. There are also historical scenes, contemporary military manoeuvres, interiors with poor women knitting or repairing clothes, birds and plants – and two typical Alma Tadema scenes.
One of the most impressive water-colours – according to me – was the one showing a slightly dilapidated farm with a line of drying washing. Perhaps one has to have tried mastering the technique to fully understand and appreciate the skill behind such a deceptively simple Dutch scene painted using watercolours.
The Mesdag Collection has restrictive opening hours. It can only be visited during the afternoons of a few days each week. It offers various discounts, including combination tickets which enable visitors to also visit Panorama Mesdag. Both the Peace Palace and Panorama Mesdag lie practically round the corner from this small and delightful museum.
The Mesdag Collection does have a small coffee corner and museum shop. Personally, I’d opt to visit one of the nearby cafés or restaurants, or walk to Panorama Mesdag with its larger museum café.