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Panorama Mesdag: A physical place of enchanting illusion

May 3, 2011 | William Zimmerman
Panorama Mesdag 1.jpg

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.

Panorama Mesdag - Interior.jpg
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.

Panorama Mesdag 2.jpg
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."

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