Panorama Mesdag: A physical place of enchanting illusion

[From The Wall Street Journal, which features additional images]

A Physical Place of Enchanting Illusion

By Jonathan Lopez
April 9, 2011

Whenever friends visit the Netherlands, I recommend they go to The Hague to see the Panorama Mesdag, a 360-degree painted view of the beach and dunes at Scheveningen, created in 1881. With so many other sites to see, few people take me up on this suggestion. But those who do always feel they’ve discovered a miraculous secret. Little-known abroad, the Panorama Mesdag is a Dutch national treasure, a magical, monumental painting of astonishing charm and beauty. And it is, without a doubt, my favorite artwork in the world.

Panoramas, sometimes called cycloramas in the U.S., were a fairly common form of popular entertainment in the 19th century. They were first perfected in London, during the 1790s, by a painter and entrepreneur named Robert Barker, who charged customers three shillings apiece for an immersive visual experience that might be thought of as a precursor to virtual reality. Beholding images of uncanny accuracy, presented at enormous scale and in the round, visitors to Barker’s Leicester Square rotunda could find themselves thrust into military engagements on the major battlefields of Europe or bewildered by exotic locales at the farthest reaches of the Empire.

To enhance the illusionism of his work, Barker devised clever feats of stagecraft and optical tricks that would be widely imitated in later panoramas, including the Panorama Mesdag. To view the great painting in The Hague, for instance, visitors must ascend to the top of a central platform, accessed through a dark passageway and spiral staircase—a purposely disorientating means of entry designed to clear one’s mind for the spectacle. The viewing platform is topped by an overhanging roof that hides the upper edge of the Panorama’s canvas from view, while a so-called “faux terrain”—a dune made of real sand—conceals the lower edge. With the Panorama’s artificial environment completely filling the viewer’s field of vision, endless seaside vistas seem to stretch to the far horizon, as faint sounds of surf and seagulls (now on a sound system; once on a phonograph) call out across the distance.

The Panorama Mesdag is named for the artist primarily responsible for its creation, Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831-1915), a celebrated master of the seascape. In working on the Panorama, Mr. Mesdag received assistance from other prominent painters of the Hague School, also known as the Northern Impressionists due to their keen interest in light and nature. The opportunity to collaborate with colleagues seems to have been one of the project’s main attractions for Mr. Mesdag. A Belgian corporation specializing in the promotion of panoramas paid him a princely sum for his efforts, but he was the heir to an enormous banking fortune and had little need of money.

Initially, the more traditionalist artists in The Hague turned up their noses at Mr. Mesdag’s eccentric undertaking. They felt sure it would be a crass production suitable only for a fairground—a suspicion that may have deepened upon delivery of the special-order cylindrical canvas, which measured 46 feet high and 395 feet in circumference. But when the finished work opened to the public in the summer of 1881, the naysayers quickly changed their tune, for it was plain to everyone that Mr. Mesdag had created a masterpiece. Johannes Bosboom, a painter of architectural views and the dean of the Dutch artistic establishment, declared the Panorama one of the greatest paintings in the Netherlands. And the young Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, “That painting’s only fault is that it has no faults.”

While most panoramas depicted dramatic events, like the Battle of Waterloo or the Great Fire of London, the Panorama Mesdag concerns itself with matters at once simpler and more profound. It offers viewers a stolen moment in time—a sunny, dazzling afternoon at the beach as it was 130 years ago. Looking out to the shore, one glimpses fishermen struggling with their nets as they bring in the day’s catch; in the distance, patrons of a stylish seaside resort stroll by the water. And inland lies the humble town of Scheveningen, where 10,000 families of modest means lived in small brick houses nestled side by side. Seeing the Panorama Mesdag is like stepping inside a great Impressionist painting and living there for a while, transported to another place and era.

Many Dutch schoolchildren get their first introduction to art through the Panorama. Some visit on class trips, but others are brought by grandparents, who lead them up the spiral stairs. The body language tells the story: Heads down and shoulders sagging, the children don’t really want to be there—until they get to the viewing platform, where their eyes suddenly grow wide and their mouths drop open in wonder. Even in this age of computer graphics and special effects, the Panorama still works its magic, and the delight it brings to a child’s face is a joy to behold.

I fell in love with the Panorama Mesdag a few years ago, while living in The Hague to research a book. Unlike Amsterdam, with its “coffee shops” and other notorious attractions, The Hague is a rather sedate city, home to the Dutch Parliament, the royal family and many international institutions. Walking around this quiet, elegant place, amid fine homes and beautiful parks, I never ceased to be amazed that an alternate reality awaited me inside a funny round building on a narrow side street—a world inside the world.

The Panorama Mesdag may not be a landmark of Western civilization in the manner of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” or Michelangelo’s “David.” But culture’s realm is vast, and one sometimes discovers greatness in unlikely places. So simple that a child can love it, yet sophisticated enough to beguile adults, this is a masterpiece whose beauty cannot be fully appreciated in photographs or in a thousand words of praise. It is an actual, physical place of enchantment, and its fairy-tale charm works only in person. So, if you’re ever in the Netherlands, do drop in.

—Mr. Lopez is editor at large of Art & Antiques.

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