A Shared Fascination with Ceramics, Haagse Kunstaardewerkfabriek, Hendrik Willem Mesdag, Japonism, Orientalism, Plateelbakkerij RAM, Plateelbakkerij Rozenburg, Pottery, The Mesdag Collection, Theo Colenbrander, Titus Eliëns
Somewhere along the line, it has become my personal mission to promote Dutch Art Nouveau to a broader (inter-)national audience. And just last week, a new exhibition opened at Museum The Mesdag Collection in The Hague: Mesdag & Colenbrander – a shared Fascination with Ceramics. About Hendrik Willem and Sientje Mesdag’s collection of Colenbrander ceramics. A perfect opportunity for me to talk about Dutch Art Nouveau again. 🙂
When I planned my visit to the museum I discovered Titus Eliëns would be guiding a tour through the new exhibition. Eliëns used to be a Professor of the History of Industrial Design in relation to the Decorative Arts at the University of Leiden. He wrote a host of books on the subject, and I keep ‘bumping into him’ when researching my topics. So off I went to The Hague, defying stormy weather and an awful lot of rain… to see the exhibition and finally meet Prof. Eliëns in the flesh.
Hendrik Willem and Sientje Mesdag
For those who don’t know, Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831-1915) was a very famous Dutch painter in the second half of the 19th century. But up until the age of 35, he only painted in his spare time. He worked at his father’s brokerage firm in Groningen. A sizeable inheritance from his father-in-law changed all that. Encouraged by his wife Sientje van Houten (1834-1909), Mesdag seized his chance to follow his dreams, and became an artist. “I am thirty-five years old. I have been trained for commerce but I am not suited to that. I am a painter. Help me.” Mesdag wrote to his cousin, the painter Lourens Alma Tadema.
Tadema helped Mesdag find direction. In 1866, he encouraged Mesdag to move to Brussels, an international hotspot for culture at the time, and take lessons from landscape painter Willem Roelofs. Lessons that benefitted Sientje as well. She was well into her thirties when she started to paint. Family friend and fellow artist Jozef Israëls would describe her as ‘a model for feminism.’
As Mesdag wished to distinguish himself from all the other landscape painters, he decided to become a marine painter. And in 1868 the couple moved to The Hague so he could paint the sea. They led an active public life and became pivotal figures in the Hague art scene.
The Mesdag Collection
So Hendrik Willem and Sientje did well. In 1887, they built a museum in the garden next to their house. To show their own paintings, but also to show their collection of Dutch and French art. They mostly bought paintings by artists of the French Barbizon School, and the Dutch Hague School. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the permanent collection and the preserved ambiance of the museum! I could just imagine Eline Vere wandering through these galleries in her whooshing silk dress…
When they again inherited a fortune, from Hendrik Willem’s own father this time, the Mesdags seriously started to buy art! They now collected anything they thought was attractive. Not just paintings, but also other valuable objects. Like Japanese ceramics and bronzes, and copper artefacts from Turkey and Persia. Orientalism was the new craze and the Mesdags embraced this trend wholeheartedly.
According to Titus Eliëns it has been a long tradition in the north of The Netherlands to collect china and showcase ones treasures in large display cases. The Mesdags lived up to their origins: earthenware and porcelain objects were everywhere. Including an unparalleled collection (more than 150 pieces) of Theo Colenbrander ceramics. Combining ancient oriental objects with contemporary art was very fashionable at the time, and I can see why they liked Colenbrander’s designs so much. His designs have a very oriental touch and yet, they were very modern.
Theodoor Christiaan Adriaan (Theo) Colenbrander (1841–1930) was trained as an architect. In the late 1850s he started working for the architect L.H. Eberson (1822–1889) in Arnhem. He participated in architectural contests and received some honorable recommendations, but nothing was ever built. In 1867 Eberson sent him to Paris to assist in the construction of the Dutch pavilion for the World Fair in Paris. And according to professor Eliëns, this is where he must have found his inspiration to start decorating ceramics. At the World Fairs, countries from all over the world would showcase not only their latest technical inventions, but also their national architecture and their best artistic achievements.
Back in the Netherlands Colenbrander settled in The Hague. A definitive turn in his career followed in 1884 after meeting Wilhelm Wolff Baron von Gudenberg, director of the recently established pottery ‘Haagse Kunstaardewerkfabriek’. Von Gudenberg was very excited about Colenbrander’s designs and between 1884 and 1889 Colenbrander was the designer and artistic director of Von Gudenberg’s faience factory (called Plateelbakkerij Rozenburg from 1886). Although inspired by natural phenomena, the patterns were stylized in such a way that they had almost become abstract (and this while abstract visual art did not yet exist).
Colenbrander refused to make concessions to prevailing fashion; he considered his work as art. On top of that, his designs were very labour intensive, hence extremely expensive. As a result his designs proved commercially unattractive. And even though Rozenburg tried to compensate that by also producing tile panels depicting the works of popular painters and more common earthenware, both Von Gudenberg and Colenbrander were fired in 1889. Later, Rozenburg would develop the famous eggshell porcelain, which did deliver the company recognition at last.
After Colenbrander left Rozenburg, he worked for several other companies and moved many times. To me, he appears to have been a restless man. He worked as an interior designer and in 1895 became the artistic director of the ‘Amersfoortsche Tapijtfabriek’, a carpet factory. The Mesdags also supported him during this period and commissioned him to refurbish the large rooms on the first floor of their home. Colenbrander painted the walls in a matt gold and added friezes with stylized floral motifs in violet and pale green. They also commissioned 3 carpets of his design: Spring 21, The Sea and a 3rd one that remains unknown. Unfortunately none of these carpets survived. But there is now a remake of his Fish carpet at the museum.
Colenbrander also continued to design ceramics. In 1912, he was asked by Plateelbakkerij Zuid-Holland in Gouda to produce decorations for existing shapes. The results were disappointing Colenbrander and he left the factory within a year. Between 1921 and 1925 he designed ceramics for Plateelbakkerij Ram, in Arnhem. This factory was established by a number of admirers – with no other purpose than to produce Colenbrander designs – at a time when he was already 80 years old! Apparently, these investors had an unbridled confidence in Colenbrander and his creations. He designed sixty new body shapes and more than seven hundred new decorations for RAM. According to Colenbrander, these patterns came to him like visions.
The Exhibition Mesdag & Colenbrander
The majority of works in Mesdag & Colenbrander date from his Rozenburg period (1884-1889), when Colenbrander started designing semi-abstract decorative patterns in bright colours. Also on show are a number of pieces from Colenbrander’s time with the RAM pottery. The exhibition looks at the creative process by which the ceramics were designed and decorated, and it throws light on the relationship between Mesdag and Colenbrander. Mesdag was not just a major collector of Colenbrander’s ceramics; he also became a shareholder in the Rozenburg pottery. To make sure Colenbrander would keep his job? We’ll never know for sure…
I found it extremely interesting to learn more about the creative process behind these ceramics. A lot was explained in the gallery texts. But professor Eliëns gave more detailed information; the guided tour really added value for me. So what did I learn? Colenbrander ceramics were made of slipcast earthenware. The clay mixture was poured into a plaster mould. As it dried off, the clay shrunk, and the piece could be turned out of the mould without difficulty. Seam lines and casting irregularities were easy to remove using a sponge and a small knife.
After drying, the pot was biscuit-fired. Colenbrander then used pencil and watercolour paint to apply the decorative patterns to the porous biscuit models. As the paint was immediately absorbed, there was no way to correct mistakes. He often painted only one part of the pattern. This was then used as an example and later repeated by factory painters on the other pieces. They applied the pattern in enamel paints and the piece would then be glazed. The ‘real’ colours were revealed only by the second firing.
Professor Eliëns pointed out some interesting facts that are not often mentioned, but still very important to keep in mind. Like for instance the fact that there was no such thing as a copyright law until 1912. Designers could move from one pottery to the next and take their designs. While potteries could also continue producing designs after the designer had left. And they could plagiarize each others successes, which was rather common. Only in 1928 a court ruling ended this practice.
Eliëns pointed out another interesting fact: in general we say Dutch Nieuwe Kunst started in the first half of the 1890s. Yet Colenbrander created these designs 10 years befóre that. What Colenbrander designed in 1884 was unprecedented in every possible way. Forms and patterns that seem to have come from exotic cultures and far away nations, resulted in extraordinary shapes and unorthodox decorations with dramatic colour schemes. Colenbrander was an absolute visionary and the Mesdags recognised that all along.
So, if you want to understand how and where it all started for the Dutch, go see this exhibition and try to grasp what happened here back in the 1880s. It truly is exceptional!
Author: Titus M. Eliëns
Publisher: Waanders Uitgevers
Paperback 96 pages
For Dutch speakers, I can recommend yet another good book by professor Titus M. Eliëns about Dutch ceramics: Het Keramiek Boek, Nederlands vernieuwingsaardewerk 1876-1940. Published in 2006 by Waanders. (It’s been on my bed stand forever!)
Mesdag & Colenbrander – a shared Fascination with Ceramics
Museum De Mesdag Collectie, The Hague, NL
8 March – 23 June 2019
Axes of Construction: An Analysis of Dutch Art Nouveau Carpet Designs by T. A. C. Colenbrander by Richard Mills
De vloerjuwelen van Theo Colenbrander
Museum De Mesdagcollectie, The Hague
N.V. Amersfoortsche Tapijtfabriek en Theo Colenbrander PDF
Theo Colenbrander 1841-1930, Vernieuwer van de kunstnijverheid
Theo Colenbrander: eenling én vernieuwer
Theo Colenbrander, veelzijdig sierkunstenaar
RAM-keramiek van Theo Colenbrander