No matter what the season, the Dutch coast has been a source of wonder for centuries. Led by Jan Toorop, a group of artists frequented the coast in the early twentieth century to let the nature and the light kindle them.
Artists affiliated with the Hague School, including Hendrik Willem Mesdag, Anton Mauve and Jan Hendrik Weissenbruch, captured the sea, the beach and the fishing boats at Scheveningen on canvas. ‘The Hague School was highly innovative during the final decade of the nineteenth century’, explained Frouke van Dijke, curator at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague and a specialist in nineteenth-century art. ‘Until that time, Dutch landscape painting had been subservient to paintings of biblical history. Any depiction of nature had to celebrate divine supremacy through huge waterfalls, masses of rock and other imposing natural scenes. Although the Dutch landscape did not exactly lend itself to this aim, the painters of the Hague School were the first to achieve success with their attempt. They made the choice to paint the incidence of light, fishing life and beach activities. What mattered was capturing the atmosphere, which had to be poetic instead of photographic.’
Piet Mondriaan also started his artistic career by adhering to the traditional style of the Hague School. He and many other artists left the city to look for the panoramic landscape with its expansive skies. As Mondriaan and Jan Toorop were close friends, he came to spend a lot of time in Domburg after the turn of the twentieth century. Toorop was a leading proponent of Dutch painting, who enticed other artists to try new styles. He commissioned a wooden exhibition space for paintings in Domburg in 1911, not only his own but also ones by Mondriaan, Lodewijk Schelfhout and Jacoba van Heemskerck. Van Dijke: ‘Toorop and Mondriaan moved beyond the realistic style of the Hague School to look for the spiritual dimension inherent in nature. Both were enthralled by the light and scoured the coastal landscape for a sign of the divine. Through their efforts to extract its essence using vivid colours, the Luminism movement was born.’
Luminist painters in the Netherlands emphasised the dazzling display of light by applying Pointillism and vivid colours, suggested Van Dijke: ‘The landscape of Zeeland and its exceptional incidence of light prompted the artists to experiment with a very bright palette. As a result, Luminism marked a clear departure from the Hague School, which mainly used soothing shades of grey.
Mondriaan had an avid interest in the Theory of Colours by the German poet Johann von Goethe. This book contained a number of suppositions from natural science about the effect on people of combining complementary colours such as orange and blue or red and green. A good example is “Molen bij zonlicht” [Mill in Sunlight], painted by Mondriaan in Domburg.’
Leo Gestel, Jan Sluijters and Ferdinand Hart Nibbrig also followed the Luminist style of Toorop and Mondriaan. Their inspiration derived from Pointillism, a technique originating in France which used dots to accentuate the light in a painting. Van Dijke: ‘Mondriaan also applied – and even advanced beyond – Pointillism by choosing vivid colours without blending them. He aimed to emit a vibrant light from the canvas, which would cause a remarkable sensation in the eye of the beholder.’
This technique reflects the unique perspective of the Luminists on the landscape features, the light, as well as the horizontal or vertical structures such as dunes and lighthouses. ‘At the time that he frequented Domburg, Mondriaan was among the landscape painters of the highest renown and stood in the tradition of the Hague School. The years that he spent studying nature would later fuel his abstract art. This simplification was a quest for the essence of nature. His abstractions proceeded ever further, even to the point that one could no longer recognise dunes or lighthouses. You can still see the light that inspired Mondriaan and Toorop more than a century ago, however.’