Netherlands – Scheveningen

A RECENT English writer on Holland says: “Scheveningen is half squalid town, half monstrous pleasure resort.”

Such a statement merely proves that this small portion of the world can be seen through other eyes than mine, and many others. I can readily understand how the last half of the statement can be true, viewed through a summer tourist’s ephemeral glasses. To speak of Scheveningen to a friend or acquaintance is to call forth the ready response: “Oh, yes, I know Scheveningen. We ran down there from The Hague and saw the beach covered with those beehive chairs. It is a curious sight. The illumination at night is fine, and the music of the best; but otherwise it must be deadly dull.”

This is the Scheveningen that the world in general knows. But there is another that James and I know — the Scheveningen that has been the inspiration of Mesdag and Maris, of Israëls and Blommers, Artz and Bosboom, and of many an artist of lesser fame. This is the Scheveningen that bars out the intrusive stranger and foreigner by its own high dykes of custom, reserve and sturdy independence; that refuses to be patronized, and shows its very heart, finely and appealingly human, only when it realizes that the stranger, or foreigner, approaches it with human sympathy apart from idle curiosity. This is the Scheveningen I would like to make known to others, this fishing-village I both know and love.

Perhaps there is no better introduction to Scheveningen, its life, its people, its joys and sorrows, its narrow closes and tiny courts, than through the medium of the Mesdag Museum on the patrician Laan van Meerdervoort. It has been opened for nearly three years. It is the gift of Hendrik Willem Mesdag, the artist interpreter of the Scheveningen strand and the North Sea in all its moods. This private collection, unequalled, it is stated on the authority of Zilcken, in Europe or out of it, has been made a gift to the state by its owner. It is a noble gift from a noble donor who wisely enjoys the usufruct of his labor in that he shares his joy of possession with all who choose to cross his threshold. The rooms connect with his own living rooms, the building for the museum having been erected on the garden.

When one counts on the walls the number of paintings portraying the fisher life of Scheveningen, one realizes that without this unique fishing-village, an humble neighbor of the rich capital of the Netherlands, there would in all probability never have been a Mesdag Museum. It seems that Mesdag, born in Groningen, after a business life of many years, devoted himself entirely to painting and collecting the masterpieces of other artists. From youth up he had given his leisure to drawing and sketching, but in middle age the call came loud and clear. He worked in 1866 in Brussels with his friend Alma-Tadema and with Roelofs. The summer of 1868 he passed at Norderney. There by the sea he “found himself,” as the Germans express it. From thence-forth he knew in what direction his calling lay, and, having made his home at The Hague in the immediate vicinity of Scheveningen, he became with the years the finest interpreter of the capricious North Sea and the life of its famous strand.

On the walls of the Mesdag Museum we find this beach drifted white with snow; near the village a great fishing boat, or pink, is shored with stakes. The men are warming tar over a fire to calk the ship. We find there the North Sea calm beneath a summer moonlight, the pinken seeming almost to rise and fall on its long swell. These two, among many, are Mesdag’s finest. We see a wreck driving like a haunted thing on tempestuous seas. We find the soft dusk of evening; a few boats are drawn up on the strand, their hulls showing dark against the clear heavens. We find, in fact, the North Sea of Heinrich Heine, who alone has been able to paint it in words:

Starless and cold is the night, The Sea yawns; And over the Sea, flat on his paunch, Lies the misshapen North Wind, And secretly, with suppressed groanings, Like a stubborn grumbler who would be good-humored, He babbles into the waters And relates his mad yarns.

The Storm is raging, And he lashes the waves,

And the waves, foaming with wrath and rearing, Tower on high, and the white mountains of waters Rock as if living. And the little boat climbs them, Laboring painfully, And suddenly it plunges downwards Into the black, wide-yawning abyss of the floods.

The sun sank deeper, and threw Glowing red beams upon the water, And the white, broad waves Urged by the tide Broke in foam, ever nearer on-rushing — I strange rustling, a whispering and whistling, A laughing and murmuring, a sighing and sousing, Intermingled with a crooning as of a cradle song at home.

Turn to Jacob Maris, brother of that Matthew who is more poet than painter. He, too, heard his clear call in the Scheveningen fisher life, and we see here his masterpieces dealing with the intimate home life and labor of the people: the mussel fishers knee-deep in water with their carts, and a “wifie” sitting on the beach watching them. He shows us the interiors of the tiny homes, the closes, a Scheveningen woman sitting on the dunes and looking out to sea — waiting for whom ?

Artz, too, felt the influence of this lowly life, and, like the others, after wandering to Paris, he returned to his own and “found himself” among the humble fisher folk. Blommers, also, and Sadée were stirred to work with this material. Even Israëls, the greatest Dutch master of the present, found the inspiration for one of his greatest, if not the greatest, of his works in the lonely dwellings by the sea. His Alone in the World in the Mesdag Museum is a masterpiece before which one stands only to feel, if he be human, a contraction of the heart. This is broad work, and there is little detail; but the humble room is a sanctuary: the shrine of a broken heart. On the rude peasant bed lies the wife, the face gray in death. Beside her sits her husband alone in the world. That is his thought; and Israëls has known with deep spiritual insight, supplemented by his genius, how to express that thought so perfectly, so humanly, that this touch of his brush shows us the whole brotherhood of man.

The Mesdag Museum is in a very real sense Scheveningen’s apotheosis.

There are other canvases, fourteen by Anton Mauve, showing the inland peasant life, and many of the modem French School that would make the name of Mesdag famous as a collector alone: beautiful Corots, grand Daubignys and Rousséaus, exquisite Millets, seven by Diaz, and by the Italian Segantini two famous canvases, one of which, The Two Mothers, strikes the same chord in mountain life that’ Millet strikes on the plains of France, and Israëls on the North Sea shores.

Taken all in all, this museum represents more clearly and consecutively than any other the trend of modern art, its democratization — the finding and expressing subjectively of the Humanly Beautiful in the life of the toilers. Meunier among the sculptors has done this thing—all praise to him. When will a Dutch sculptor arise to do the same for his own people ?

Having seen Scheveningen in art, it is well to verify the truth of this art by seeking the source of its inspiration. As the dunes are worn away little by little by the encroachment of the North Sea, so year by year this typical fisher life, that is lived behind and on them, loses something of its individuality. The encroaching flood of the New and the Progressive undermines it socially, and little by little the old life falls away. Even now the younger Scheveningen girls are beginning to neglect the charming costume of their mothers, and wear gowns and hats of twentieth century make. The streets are changing, and the great summer caravansary with its mushroom growth is closing in upon the little village that has hidden itself behind the dunes for protection against the ravages of the sea.

But the old Scheveningen is still to be found, only, like all else worth seeing in the Netherlands, one must seek for it. The Old Church, the fishermen’s church, still stands at the end of Keizer Straat, a sentinel of the centuries, just behind the dunes. It is the only landmark that was left after the terrible inundation in the seventeenth century that swept the fishing hamlet out of existence. There is a break just here in the line of dunes that stretch from The Helder all along the coast of North and South Holland and save the land from being engulfed. By this break, the sea, until the building of the esplanade, a small dyke in reality and a comparatively recent structure, came up in times of high water as far as the spot where now stands the Promenade Hotel, a distance of a mile inland towards The Hague, and stood three feet deep beneath the trees of the Old Scheveningen Road.

Behind the dunes and below the lighthouse is the present village, one can hardly say “built,” for the mass of tiny huddling houses seems to have burrowed into the unstable hills. They are hidden by them from most points of view, and the overtopping sands drift upon them and threaten the very roofs.

I used to stand at sunset on the dunes by the lighthouse tower which signals across the chasm, where now is the valley of Keizer Straat, to the Old Church, and marvel at the teeming life hidden from sight before me — a life that lives and loves, that is married and gives in marriage, that rears its eight or ten children to a family, and toils to feed the many mouths from the sparse bounty of the capricious North Sea; that worships in the old church of its fathers with old-time simple faith, and obeys God’s laws as best it can under the circumstances.

It was but a few steps across the dunes, set sparsely with coarse hummock grass, the roots of which hold down the shifting sand, to the abrupt edge of the sand-hill from which Scheveningen is best seen. Just here I could have stepped from the dunes upon the little red or black tiled roofs below. When I turned to look behind me I saw the waters of the fishers’ havens, inner and outer, filled with black weather-beaten pinken, and beyond these, the sea of dunes, lonely, solemn, but not dreary, billowed far and away to the horizon and into the mists of sunset. Before me the old Scheveningen burrowed its red roofs into the sand-hills and spread irregularly down their sloping sides — a solid mass of brick and tiles with curious zigzag lines drawn in and through them which marked the lanes, alleys, closes, streets, slops and laantjes of the jumble of houses apparently tumbling downwards to Keizer Straat, and the foot of the old fishermen’s church.

I liked to walk down Keizer Straat as far as the “slop,” a long winding alley which an unheeding stranger would pass without a thought of what lies behind this mere crack between two houses, and, entering it, make my way along its narrow length — two may pass provided one stands to the wall — up through the “Iaantjes,” or avenues in miniature, to West Straat. I lost my way the first time I attempted to penetrate the labyrinth. It was Sunday. The whole population, dressed in their Sunday best, filled the alleys and streets. They looked at me through their level unflinching lids as if they did not see me, and barely tolerated the presence of a stranger and a foreigner in their midst. In my confusion I turned to a woman who was leading two tiny pink and white girlies, hardly more than babies, one by each hand, and in my halting Dutch asked the way to Keizer Straat.

She examined me for a matter of ten seconds as if I “had come from the Boffins,” with a look, not of mistrust, but as if I had been a poor worm which she was hesitating to crush beneath her foot. Then she said without a smile of encouragement or an inflection of voice, “Come with me;” and strode down the laantje at the Scheveningen woman’s cart-pace, the two dear babies doing their best to emulate her. She spoke no further word. I realized she was undergoing a trial in my company and that the eyes of Scheveningen at that moment were upon us. The straight looks that were cast at the “stranger within their gates” were not wholly of disapproval, but they seemed to goad the woman on to get me out of the sacred precincts as soon as possible. At the corner she stopped short and pointed to the slop. “Down there,” and turned to go back. I thanked her and tried to press a small silver piece into her hand. Never shall I forget the superb air of toleration, the warding-off gesture with which she raised her hand and pushed mine and its money aside, not ungently, but firmly. “Not on Sunday,” she said, still unbending; and I stood there rebuked, ashamed, and in my confusion bent to caress the children. Seeing this, she smiled and her whole attitude towards me changed. I asked their ages and where she lived. I thanked her, and bade her “Good-day” with the determination to do by her as I would do by any other lady who had shown me a favor.

One day, a few weeks later, I made my appearance again in the inner court circle of Scheveningen, armed with a bunch of fresh daffodils for my benefactress. I had to inquire the way to her home more than once, and the daffodils, as much strangers as I in the small desert of stone and brick where no flower blooms and no tree gives its shade, caused as many wondering and approving looks and expletives as my inquiries. In fact, half the community was “set by the ears” when they found I was taking Vrouw A. some flowers. It was a workaday atmosphere in which I moved. All the women and old men were at home; all the able-bodied men were on the sea, for the fishing-fleet had gone out two days before.

Every little close, not much larger than a city basement’s front area, was smothered by a clothes-rack on which were stretched blue shirts and white, bed covers and the family wash. The women in their undress uniform — small close white cap like a nightcap, and minus frills, gold pins, aprons and many petticoats — were washing and rinsing in pewter tubs just outside their Dutch doors, over the lower closed half of which the rosy cheeked toddlers peeked at me. Some were bringing the water from the common pump in the middle of the laantje. Many of the huge fishwives in the full bloom of tousled hair, small white cap aloft, faces round and red, weather-seasoned hands and arms, their strength and proportions like men, followed me with arms akimbo and an unintelligible word of direction. But there was never a rudeness, only a kindly inflection of the voice and a showing of the generally toothless gums in a smile, when they knew my errand.

I found the little home at the bottom of a small close that was reached from a tiny square as big as a pantry, which square was connected with the street by a long winding passage — I think it was about three feet wide — formed by the walls, doors, and porthole-windows of numberless other tiny houses. By that time every woman and old man on the route had shown me a friendly face. It was then that, metaphorically, Scheveningen extended to me the hand of fellow-ship and gave me the freedom of its narrow courts.

Afterwards it showed me its heart.

It was on the occasion of a later visit I was made welcome in the tiny houses. I was shown the rude wall-cupboard bed with the wooden doors that shut it from sight in the daytime. I was shown the shelf-cradle, or tiny bunk for the last baby, placed on the foot wall about a yard above the parental couch. I was shown with pride the simple blue and white tea-things on the table under the cotton-lace draped porthole. I was shown the microscopic grate for turf-burning and cooking that is placed in the three-foot square entrance and is used by two families in common in order to save fuel. They hive for warmth in winter, sleeping six, and many times eight, in the one small box of a garret. No room is larger than a good-sized closet or small storeroom. They are chilled through, although they are inured to all weathers, for want of proper heat when the searching northwest wind, driving in from the sea, finds them out in their cool, damp burrows. Their scourge is consumption, induced by the foul air of overcrowded sleeping-rooms and insufficient food of the right kind. They sleep at home. They live and work in the open, and their recreation is to don their best and gossip as they walk with that peculiar carriage, which is half swing, half roll, half stride, up and down the length of Keizer Straat from beyond the” slop” to the Old Church. They are poor, proud, sturdily independent —no beggars are among the Scheveningen folk—haughty almost in their carriage, which is noticeably fine, clannish, intermarrying with their own, never eager to make acquaintance with strangers, and pursuing their calling of fish-catching and fish-selling with the conscious pride of professionals.

In winter or spring it is a common sight to see a pink drawn up by horses on the beach. It is moved as a house is, on rollers. You may see at such times the living pictures of Mesdag, of Maris, of Israëls, Artz, and Sadée. The dark battered hulls stand out from the gray sands against the gray rolling mists. The heavy zwards, or lee-boards, are folded close against their sides like a wild duck’s wings when it rests in the reeds. Two sailors, the whole crew, are sitting on the roller, smoking their pipes. A group of men farther down the strand are in the water beside their carts. They are raking over the mussels that the tide brings in by the half-ton. Rarely a woman is seen. She is either at home with the children, hawking fish in the streets, selling it in the stalls of the market-place beneath the protection of the Groote Kerk in The Hague, or working by the day, like our werkvrouw, to eke out the scanty living.

Such is the life of these people among whom the greatest artists of the Netherlands have found an inspiration that makes their art appeal through its humanity.

But it is on Sunday when they are seen at their best. Then the courts and closes — and, by the way, the air in them is free from odors of all kinds, for they have the continual North Sea winds for a besom — are cleared of litter, the very paving stones and bricks scrubbed clean, the little wooden shutters closed over the lace-draped portholes, the doors locked, and the men and women of Scheveningen in their Sunday best repair to the Old Church behind the dunes. The women are in fresh-frilled, snow-white caps of linen or lace adorned with the gold pins given them by mother or grandmother on the occasion of the first communion, in silk aprons, numberless black petticoats, and the heavy full capes of mauve, pomegranate, Gobelin blue and olive green. The men dress in thick reefers, loose full trousers, black velveteen slippers, and waistcoats adorned with a rare silver button or two.

The Old Church of Scheveningen is the only one in all North and South Holland in which I felt at home. In fact, I might add that, with the exception of the Cathedral at ‘s Hertogenbosch and the little Catholic chapel in the Begÿnenhof in Amsterdam, it is the only church in all the Netherlands for me. The interior is simple, beautiful and inviting. The graceful white pillars of the nave have delicate green capitals — a mood color of the North Sea when it rolls above sun-filled shallows. The old pulpit, high up against one of the pillars, has for a background beyond the column a large window set with stained glass, in color the same pale sea-green that decorates the capitals. A looped curtain near it is of the same shade. Under the organ, at the end of the nave, are high-backed wooden stalls, rising one above the other, that form an exquisite setting for the faces of the young girls who occupy them. The stone floor is sunken and worn both by feet and water. In the corner by the entrance stands the backbone of some sea monster, walrus or whale. The sanctuary is redolent of the sea.

I was present at the Easter morning service. The large church was filled, the men on one side of the nave by the pulpit, the women and girls facing it on the other. (The children were one and all at their own Children’s Church in a court around the corner just under the ter-race.) The snow-white table for the communion was set down the length of the nave It was a brilliant morning, and the strong eastern sun shone through the sea-green glass window behind the pulpit and fell upon the upturned, earnest faces of the hundreds of white-capped women and girls. Those faces were transfigured in that pale green translucent light that caught here and there on a gold or silver hair-band or a silver chalice. This light took the strong color from their faces. It smoothed away all lines of toil. The physical ravages of care and hardship were annulled, and the spirit of worship was free to give itself expression about the eyes and mouths. I cannot imagine a sight at once more artistically beautiful, more humanly appealing, more spiritually uplifting, more suggestive of Humanity’s possibilities.

Oh, Rembrandt van Ryn! If — it is a large one — if only you had been born a hundred years before your time! If you had been a member of the Catholic cult, and if you could have seen the interior of the Old Church of Scheveningen on a bright Easter morning, you would have painted a Madonna with just that same wondrous light upon her face—the transfigured light of The Night Watch — a light the influence of which would have spiritualized a continent, even had your Madonna been but a peasant mother of Scheveningen.

And the singing! The plain-song, without parts, of hundreds of strong voices that are used to call to one another across the abysses of the sea, its marvellous resonance rising, falling, swelling like the sea-surge ! This song thrilled like the sound of many waters, sending forth in slow, deliberate diapason the worship of hundreds of those strong men that go down to the sea in ships. I shall never hear the like again, unless in Scheveningen. Every cadence was a great wave of harmony that found its echo in the sea — a requiem for those lost, a pæan for those saved, a thanksgiving and a prayer.