I guess we’re all familiar with the way in which the French Impressionists shook up the art world in the 1870s by depicting landscapes and scenes from modern everyday life often painted outdoors using bright, pure colours applied with rapid, often visible brush-strokes.
What I didn’t know – until I found some of their paintings in the Rijkmuseum last month – was that at the same time a group of Dutch painters were similarly intent on representing the changing modern landscape of their country and daily life of its people; artists who, like their French counterparts, were keen to capture the sensation of the moment, and shifting patterns of light on the landscape by working in the open air.
The key difference lay in the Dutch artists’ initial preference for muted colours. Painting under the grey skies of the Netherlands the group became known as the ‘Grey School’, then later as the ‘Hague School’.
The artists who began working together in The Hague in the 1870’s were a group whose work was heavily influenced by the realist painters of the French Barbizon school such as Millet, Corot and Daubigny. Paintings by members of the Hague school were similarly characterised by their realism, their interest in the hard lives of working people – and their preference for sombre tones.
Members of the group included Hendrik Willem Mesdag, who was the first to move to The Hague in 1869, Jacob Maris, Jozef Israëls, and Anton Mauve. They joined Gerard Bilders, Willem Maris, Johannes Bosboom and Johan Weissenbruch who were already living there. These men were all friends and helped promote each other’s work through exhibitions, thus quickly projecting the image of a group that shared a unified artistic and stylistic character.
Their predilection for a grey tones became one of their recognisable characteristic, and they were labelled ‘the Hague School’ in 1875 by a critic who wrote of their ‘new way of seeing and depicting things’, and their intent to convey mood in which tone took precedence over colour. Their preference, he observed, was for ‘bad weather effects’ and an ‘overall grey mood’.
One such painting that grabbed my attention in the Rijksmuseum was Johan Weissenbruch’s Autumn Landscape. Weissenbruch spent a great deal of time in the village of Noorden on the Nieuwkoop lakes north-east of the Hague, where he would venture out to sketch impressions of the watery landscape, even in poor weather. Later, he worked up these sketches in his studio. In Autumn Landscape the paint layers were applied wet-on-wet in an attempt to capture on canvas the damp atmosphere of the Dutch polder landscape. The result is definitively watery and wet.
When the rain was really lashing down, even a Hague School artist couldn’t work outside. In Cellar of the Artist’s Home in The Hague, Weissenbruch has resorted to depicting the interior of his own house, with a view of the cellar (he also painted the attic and courtyard) with a subdued palette which nevertheless studies the effect of light falling through the far window of the cellar, and the resulting range of grey and brown tones. A few green cabbage leaves on the tile floor in the foreground provide the only contrast.
Gerard Bilders was one of the first painters in Holland to be influenced by the realist painters of the French Barbizon school. In his paintings he sought to reproduce the moods and particular light effects that the landscape evoked by recreating ‘the impression of a warm, fragrant grey’ which had inspired him in the work of the Barbizon painters. He mixed colours of his palette with grey to achieve this effect, foreshadowing the painting style of the Hague School painters. Bilders painted Woodland Pond at Sunset to recreate the effect of sunset mirrored in the pond. The dark branches of the trees contrast and reinforce the glowing light of the sky.
Keen to convey atmosphere, the Hague School artists worked outdoors, painting the dunes, the sea, cloudy skies and windmills that distinguish the Dutch landscape. But they also chose subjects that reflected how that landscape was changing as railways, canals and bridges appeared, and industry and urbanisation made its mark.
The image of the Netherlands projected in many of these paintings was one of land being reclaimed from the sea, rivers and marshes by pumping mills and drainage canals. They also reflected the austere lives of peasant farmers, shepherds and fishermen, and members of a new industrial working class. Their subjects were not idealised: the Hague painters preferred to portray in realistic terms what they actually saw.
Jozef Israëls, a leading member of the group, painted The Sand Bargeman in 1887. In 1871 he had moved into a modern villa in The Hague where, from his sitting room, he could see the fishermen, sand bargemen and seaside visitors travelling by canal to and from Scheveningen. In his painting a sand bargeman is transporting sand from dunes which are being levelled as The Hague expands into new districts.
One of the most celebrated paintings of the Hague School is Anton Mauve’s The Marsh. Mauve had learnt his trade in Haarlem, apprenticed to a painter who specialised in painting cattle and another who painted horses. (Later Mauve’s painting of flocks of sheep would be in high demand, with ones that depicted sheep going commanding higher prices than those of them coming.)
The Marsh was painted in the Naardermeer, a natural wetland area near Amsterdam threatened a few years later when the city council planned to turn it into a landfill site for dumping refuse. In one of the earliest ecological movements in the Netherlands, led by a school-teacher Jac P Thijse, the marsh was saved and became the first official Dutch nature reserve.
Mauve took a studio in The Hague in 1871, where for a while he taught Vincent Van Gogh, to whom he was related by marriage. At the Rijksmueum I learned that Van Gogh’s artistic roots lay in the painters of the Hague School: with them he shared a love of the ancient bogs, swamps, dunes and marshes that were rapidly disappearing as they were drained to create polders for agriculture, or were swallowed up as industry grew and towns spread.
Anton Mauve encouraged Van Gogh to make drawings of models – often women from the nearby seaside resort of Scheveningen – in his studio and taught him how to go about making a watercolour or a sketch in oils.
The influence of the Hague school continued to be felt in the work Van Gogh created after he moved north to Drente and began working on the various versions of The Potato Eaters that I saw later that day in the Van Gogh Museum. Apart from Mauve, the Hague painter who had the greatest influence on Van Gogh was Jozef Israëls, whose Peasant Family at the Table can also be seen there.
From 1882 Mauve painted in Laren, a village located to the east of Amsterdam in heathland, barren but for the occasional tree or shrub. This was where Mauve sketched the flocks of sheep which became such a popular subject of his painting. In his workshop Mauve turned the studies he had made outdoors into large compositions. Soon, these were popular on the English and American markets, and his name became synonymous with ‘sheep paintings’.
As time went on, the artists of the Hague School changed and began to follow different paths with many abandoning the greyish tones of earlier paintings. Under the influence of French Impressionism their palette became lighter and brighter and their brush-strokes looser. For example, Josef Israel’s son Isaac broke with the conventions of his father and other Hague group members by depicting carefree holiday-makers at the seaside resort of Scheveningen, where he often spent summers with his father.
But several of the painters in the Hague group began to introduce more colour into their work. For Johan Hendrik, the sky above the Dutch polders began to play a more important role. His landscapes became full of light and clouds, and recognising the importance of these elements he said:
The sky in a painting, that is what is most important! Sky and light are the great magicians. The sky determines what the painting is. Painters can never pay too much attention to the sky. We live from light and sunshine.
Weissenbruch enjoyed working outdoors in the countryside. He usually found his subjects in the area around The Hague where he lived, rarely going far from home. The Trekvliet was a shipping canal that linked The Hague with the neighbouring villages of Rijswijk and Voorburg. Weissenbruch painted this tranquil landscape in bright colours several times.
The notion that their paintings invariably reflected an ‘overall grey mood’ was rejected by another member of the Hague School, Paul Gabriel, who painted A Windmill on a Polder Waterway (also known as In the Month of July) in 1889. Alongside his painting in the Rijksmuseum I found this quote from Gabriel:
Our country is saturated with colour. I repeat, our country is not grey, not even in grey weather, nor are the dunes grey.
The approach of the Hague School painters was taken forward by another group, the Amsterdam Impressionists. They, like their French counterparts, put impressions of modern city life onto canvas with rapid, visible brush strokes. George Breitner studied at the Royal Academy in The Hague where he came into contact with artists of the Hague School such as Jozef Israëls, Jacob Maris and Anton Mauve. In 1884 he spent some time in Paris where he into came into contact with Impressionism. Settling in Amsterdam he became noted for his free and energetic depictions of urban life.
Breitner often took photographs to capture ideas for his paintings, and The Singel Bridge at the Paleisstraat in Amsterdam was based on one such photo. The way the woman walks straight towards us, and the way in which the image is cropped make the picture distinctly photographic.
Breitner usually painted working-class figures: labourers, servant girls and people from the poorer districts. He was concerned with the social issues of the day, and fired by the novels of Émile Zola that depicted proactive working class people and were fiercely critical of inequities in society. (It was Breitner who introduced Van Gogh to his work: in 1882 the pair met in The Hague where they worked together, often sketching in the poorer areas of town.) Breitner initially depicted the woman in the foreground as a maid, but after a negative review, the gallery representing him felt it would be better if he made her into an elegant lady.
As well as being a painter, Breitner was a noted photographer, taking many photographic studies of urban life in the 1890s, some of which he used as inspiration for his paintings. The majority of his photographs were taken out in the streets, specifically those of his home town Amsterdam; most are filled with people passing by or children playing together. Today he is often regarded as a pioneer of street photography.
Breitner wasn’t alone. I learned from the Rijksmuseum display that it wasn’t only the painters of the Hague School, but also photographers who took a keen interest in the Dutch landscape and the ways in which it was changing. Some Dutch pictorialist photographers adopted a similar artistic approach – in terms of content and style – to the Hague School painters in their landscape in photography. The Haarlem-based photographer Adriaan Boer’s heath landscape with a flock of sheep is highly reminiscent of the Hague School.
Industrialization came relatively late to the Netherlands: it was only from 1860 onwards that industrialization and urbanization started to leave their marks on the Dutch landscape. Miles of railway lines were constructed, drainage channels dug and bridges built, all of which altered the typical Dutch landscape of desolate marshes, vacant polders and low horizons. Now, a modern landscape with steam-driven pumping stations, widened and straightened rivers, and a network of railways and telegraph poles, emerged.
At the same time as Hague School landscape painters were active, photographers were also recording images of a countryside which was undergoing rapid changes. Some were employed by the state to document major public works. These photographs witness the emergence of a modern Netherlands, with extensive railway network, large steam pumping stations, and wide canals for steamship traffic.
The Scottish pictorialist James Craig Annan visited the Netherlands in 1892, taking hundreds of photographs. In an article in the journal of the Glasgow Boys, he wrote about his stay in Holland:
All is cold and grey for it is early spring and last year’s grass is only a shade deeper than the sand, which stretches hillock beyond hillock until they meet the greyer sky, which westward blends into the horizon of the sea..
Annan was to influence the development of photography in the United States through having his work exhibited at Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession Galleries in New York. On his own European tour, Stieglitz produced twenty ‘Dutch subjects’, including Scurrying Home, a scene with two fisher-women walking towards a distant church in an image that might easily have been painted by a member of the Hague School.
Another American photographer who captured scenes in the Netherlands at this time was Alvin Langdon Coburn. His study of boats and reflections in Rotterdam in 1908 is the collection of the Rijksmuseum, as also is this view of a Dutch windmill by the French photographer Robert Demachy, made in1912.
- The Hague School http://dkiel.com/Netherlands/HagueSchool/HagueSchool.html
- The Hague School in the Rijksmuseum
- Jozef Israels: The Plight of the Fisherman: an interesting blog post on the connection between Israels and Van Gogh