In the 19th century it was still practically impossible for women to become artists. Thanks to painters Sientje van Houten (1834-1909) and Suze Robertson (1855-1922) the way was paved for later generations. Being close friends, it is no surprise that Van Houten bought Robertson’s work when Van Houten and her husband Hendrik Willem Mesdag founded their collection, part of which is located at the Panorama Mesdag Museum.
After her death, Suze Robertson was quickly forgotten even though she had played an important role in modern Dutch art. Her work was bold and expressive compared to her male colleagues who were part of The Hague school of painting. Instead of finely painted fishing boats at sea, ducks in the ponds or sheep on a meadow, Robertson painted ordinary women at work. I would therefore strongly suggest to visit the permanent collection at the Panorama Mesdag Museum before you go to the Suze Robertson exhibition, I promise you will be swept off your feet!
More than seventy works of Robertson, some of which haven’t been shown before, have been brought together by the museum for the first solo exhibition in forty years. Robertson died 100 years ago and this commemorative show also presents the research conducted in the past decade, revealing more about her personal life thanks to the opening of the Robertson family archives.
Growing up without a mother is always difficult but for Robertson life took a turn for the better when she was sent to her art loving aunt and uncle who stimulated her talent for drawing. She attended the teacher training course at the The Hague Art Academy and when she left school her art teacher gave her painting materials stressing she should become an independent painter and not waste her life as an art teacher. However, her father didn’t have enough money to set her up so she moved to Rotterdam to start teaching.
With some difficulty she found herself a job at a secondary school teaching girls who were not much younger than herself. In her free time she enrolled in the art academy of Rotterdam but was banned from taking model classes since women were not allowed study the male nudes. However, this didn’t put her off and Robertson became a member. A smart move because being a member you were allowed to attend all classes so she had to be accepted. This caused quite a stir since it was deemed inappropriate for a female teacher to take model classes, who knows what she is going to teach her students!
Five years later she found a better paid teaching job in Amsterdam and she enrolled in the evening classes of the Art Academy of Amsterdam. Her uniqueness was noticed by the director, August Allebé, and he advised her to go back to The Hague to settle as an independent artist. In the 1880-1890s her hometown was still the centre of the arts in The Netherlands. She was 27-years-old and ready to jump into the deep end. So she gave up her well paid teaching job even though she had never painted a painting before! Her family and friends were aghast and thought she was reckless giving up her stable life. But headstrong as she was she chose to become a professional painter.
She settled in a one room apartment and became member of Pulchri Studios, a male dominated institute. Only 10% of the members were women and they were expected to behave modestly and stay in the background. This is where she met Sientje van Houten, who was married to Hendrik Willem Mesdag, both being founding members of Pulchri.
Of course, Robertson didn’t sit quietly in the corner, she manifested herself and had to fight to be acknowledged. Her skills were appreciated, but her work was frowned upon. The themes Robertson covered were atypical for women at the time, no cats like Henriette Ronner Knip, no portraits like Thérèse Schwartze (although both were extremely successful in their genres), Robertson painted the harsh live of working women, similar to the fishing women of Jozef Israels. Her expressive brush strokes however, might bring the work of Antonio Mancini to mind. Her colour palette is also much darker than Israels’ and might remind you of the early work of Van Gogh, or maybe you could say Van Gogh’s work looks like that of Suze Robertson.
Although highly appreciated by the avant-garde, many gallery owners tried to convince her to paint beautiful faces rather than these of ordinary women. Her reply was always, ‘if you don’t like it, I’ll take it elsewhere,’ and she did. Her work was also criticized by the art critics for not being mainstream but most of all beacause she was an independent woman who followed her own path in her life and her work.
This exhibition runs until 5th March at the Panorama Mesdag Museum, so you can kill two birds with one stone: visit the unique panorama of Scheveningen and pay tribute to one of The Hague’s most talented female painters, Suze Robertson. Wendy Fossen 28th December 2022