Panoramas: a global phenomenon

Panorama craze

Getekende dwarsdoorsnede van een panorama in een gebouw met mensen er in.

Commissioned

Panoramas were a global phenomenon during the 19th century. As the forerunners of photography and film, travelling panoramas were used to convey news. They helped visitors find out what was happening elsewhere. At one point, there were around 300 panoramas in existence.

The Scheveningen Panorama is the result of the Belgian panorama craze that erupted around 1875. Some entrepreneurs in Brussels wanted to get a piece of the pie and asked Hendrik Willem Mesdag to paint a 'Maritime Panorama of the Hague', probably on the advice of Mesdag's art dealer in Brussels.

Economic difficulties

In the years that followed, and despite the panorama’s favourable reviews and royal interest straight after its completion, the panorama failed to achieve the commercial success that had been predicted by the Belgian investors.

After four years, the panorama was on the brink of bankruptcy. The artist was so upset by this that he bought his own masterpiece in 1886. This is how Panorama Mesdag remained a permanent attraction on Zeestraat in The Hague.

But although the panorama’s competitor on Bezuidenhout went bankrupt in 1887, things still did not pick up. In order to attract more visitors to Zeestraat, Mesdag brought the 'Panorama of Cairo and the Banks of the Nile', which had previously been exhibited in Vienna and Munich, to The Hague. He rented out his 'own' canvas – which by now was justifiably his – first of all to the Panorama Society in Munich (1887) and then to Amsterdam (1889/91).

Panorama canvases continued to hang in the beautiful Panorama building in Amsterdam, halfway down Plantage Middenlaan and opposite Artis Zoo, until 1926. The last one was 'The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem'. The building was demolished in 1935, going down without a trace.

  • De glazen cilinder met daarop de schets door H.W. Mesdag, op de achtergrond het Panorama van Scheveningen.
  • Het belvedere met het Panorama van Scheveningen.
  • Hendrik Willem Mesdag, Schetsboekblad, ca. mei-jun 1880, Collectie Museum Panorama Mesdag.
Glazen cilinder met daarop schets van het panorama, bovenop het platform bij het panorama.
Drie heren poseren bij het panorama, eind negentiende eeuw.
Schetsboekblad van rotonde voor het panorama.

The story behind Mesdag's panorama

Popular attraction

In 1880, marine painter Hendrik Willem Mesdag was commissioned to produce a panoramic painting of Scheveningen. However, by 1900, the popularity of panoramas was rapidly declining: static paintings were no match for dynamic films.

Many panorama buildings were either demolished or repurposed, and the large paintings were ripped to shreds. Fortunately, the Scheveningen Panorama has been preserved. It is the oldest panorama that can still be visited at its original location.

The Scheveningen Panorama has long been one of The Hague's most popular attractions.

In the 19th century, panoramas were a global phenomenon. As the forerunners of photography and film, travelling panoramas were used to convey news. They helped visitors find out what was happening elsewhere. At one point, there were around 300 panoramas in existence. The large paintings travelled from city to city and attracted large numbers of visitors.

Amsterdam, Munich, Cairo, The Hague

Mesdag's maritime panorama opened on Zeestraat on 1 August 1881, the day after a competing panorama opened in a stylish building on Bezuidenhout (where the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs was later built). Panoramas also opened in Amsterdam and Rotterdam around the same time, but none of them proved to be a success.

By 1885, Mesdag's Scheveningen Panorama had already gone bankrupt. The painter was so upset by this that he bought it himself in late 1886. But although the panorama’s competitor on Bezuidenhout went bankrupt in 1887, things still did not pick up.

In order to attract more visitors to Zeestraat, Mesdag brought the 'Panorama of Cairo and the Banks of the Nile', which had previously been exhibited in Vienna and Munich, to The Hague. He rented out his 'own' canvas – which by now was justifiably his – first of all to the Panorama Society in Munich (1887) and then to Amsterdam (1889/91).

Panorama canvases continued to hang in the beautiful Panorama building in Amsterdam, halfway down Plantage Middenlaan and opposite Artis Zoo, until 1926. The last one was 'The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem'. The building was demolished in 1935, going down without a trace.

A family business

Echtpaar Mesdag tijdens hun huwelijksjubileum feest in Pulchri, omringd door kinderen in klederdracht.

Expansion

In an attempt to breathe new life into his panorama, Hendrik Willem had the garden between the front porch on Zeestraat and the Rotunda building converted into exhibition halls in 1910-1911. There, he exhibited his and his wife Sientje’s works. Sientje died in 1909. However, his efforts to draw in visitors were of little use. Even with this gallery, the large canvas attracted little interest.

In 1910, a year after his wife’s death, Mesdag founded a family business in order to secure the future of Panorama Mesdag.

Vision for the future

The couple’s 33 nephews and nieces were all granted a share in the company, thereby accepting a serious collective responsibility: to ensure the operation and preservation of Panorama Mesdag. Hendrik Willem covered the operational losses himself until his death in 1915.

From 1918 to 1934, the heirs were fortunate enough to rent the entire complex to the municipality, which housed the new Modern Art department of The Hague's Gemeentemuseum. Once the municipality drastically reduced the price of admission tickets for cultural policy reasons, things finally started to pick up. The wooden support structure in the dunes even had to be reinforced in order to accommodate the large numbers of visitors.

After 1934, the family business managed to stay afloat by renting out part of the Panorama Hall for temporary exhibitions and selling the occasional painting to cover major maintenance costs. After World War Two, the number of visitors rose to between 150,000 and 200,000 per year.

To this day, the descendants of Hendrik Willem and Sientje continue to facilitate the panorama’s operation and preservation. The panorama and the building itself have since undergone major renovation work. As a result, Museum Panorama Mesdag remains a private initiative to this day. For 140 years, it has offered visitors a magical experience of space in the olden days: a unique cultural and historical heritage for young and old.

The Painters of the Panorama of Scheveningen

Publication: biography of a work of art

In 2021, to mark the 140th anniversary of the world-famous Scheveningen Panorama, The Painters of the Scheveningen Panorama was published.

Military precision

This publication tells the story of the realisation of Mesdag's panorama for the very first time: from commission to opening in 1881 and from initial pencil sketch to painted canvas measuring 14.5m high and 114.5m in circumference. Mesdag’s military precision and devotion to this commission are revealed in the publication, as well as the work’s turbulent beginning.

Tribute

The lavishly illustrated publication is a tribute to a special collaboration between five artists. Hendrik Willem Mesdag worked on this commission with his wife Sientje Mesdag-van Houten, good friend Bernard Blommers and the young artists George Hendrik Breitner and Théophile de Bock. The publication dedicates a separate chapter to each of the contributors. These artists’ relationships with Mesdag have never before been explored in such detail. How did they contribute, what did working with the celebrated master Hendrik Willem Mesdag involve and did working on the panorama influence their subsequent careers?