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HOUTEN, Sientje van (born Groningen, 23 December 1834 – died The Hague, 20 March 1909), artist and art collector. Daughter of Derk van Houten (1810-1864), timber merchant, and Barbara Elisabeth Meihuizen (1809-1856). Sientje van Houten married Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831-1915), stockbroker and later artist, on 23 April 1856 in Groningen. The couple had 1 son.

Sientje van Houten came from a prominent Mennonite family of Groningen, and grew up with seven siblings, two of whom died young. The family lived in a converted mill at Damsterdiep 215, outside the city gates of Groningen. Her father, Derk van Houten, a timber merchant who traded in beams and ships’ masts, had a sawmill built next to the mill, and in a short time managed to establish a successful international timber business. He was a member of the Groningen town council, the Provincial States, the Chamber of Commerce and the Mennonite church council, and also built up a modest art collection, which meant that the children were exposed to art at an early age. The poor health of Sientje’s mother meant that Sientje, the eldest daughter, was forced to take responsibility for many of the household chores. Politics was a frequent topic of conversation in the Van Houten family – Sientje’s brother Samuel later became a well-known politician. A regular visitor to their home was the liberal clergyman J.W. Straatman, who exerted a great influence on young Sientje.

In 1856 Sientje van Houten married Hendrik Willem Mesdag, who also came from a well-to-do Mennonite family of Groningen. The two families were on good terms. Hendrik, a stockbroker, was an employee at his father’s bank. The couple went to live at Vismarkt 219b, where their son Nicolaas (Klaas) was born in 1863.

Early artistic career

At his wife’s urging, Hendrik Willem Mesdag decided in 1864 to devote himself completely to painting, a step made possible by an inheritance from Sientje’s father, who had died that year. The couple moved to the painters’ village of Oosterbeek, where Hendrik spent his days out of doors, drawing from nature. In the meantime, Sientje too had begun to make cautious attempts to depict the landscape. In the summer of 1866, Hendrik became apprenticed to the landscape painter Willem Roelofs in Brussels. The Mesdag-van Houten household in Rue Van de Weyer soon became a meeting place for Dutch and Belgian painters, which stimulated Sientje’s talent for drawing. She received instruction not only from Roelofs but also from Hendrik’s cousin Laurens Alma Tadema, a painter more famous in those days than now.

In 1868 the Mesdag-van Houtens visited the German island of Nordeney, where Hendrik was so impressed by the sea and the beach that he resolved to become a marine painter. The couple therefore moved in 1869 to The Hague, where they lived first at Anna Paulownastraat 71 and later at Laan van Meerdervoort 9. At the Villa Elba Hotel, Hendrik rented a studio with a view of the sea, where Sientje also drew frequently. At this time she took drawing lessons from Christiaan d’Arnaud Gerkens, a painter and friend of the family. In 1871, after the death of their son from diphtheria, Sientje van Houten devoted herself completely to painting.

‘An independent heroine of art’

At first Sientje Mesdag-van Houten concentrated on landscape painting, going with Harriet Lindo, a painter friend, to draw in the Scheveningen dunes. On these occasions Lindo gave her instruction, which, according to Sientje, greatly benefited her. Otherwise she worked alone or with artist friends in Drenthe, Overijssel and the Veluwe region in the province of Gelderland. She also painted flower and fruit still lifes, as well as portraits. Her bold brushstrokes and rich, dark palette gave her landscapes a subdued character. Later on, it was her still lifes in particular that became more colourful.

Starting in 1872, Sientje Mesdag-van Houten began to submit her work to the national exhibitions of Living Masters and to participate in the group exhibitions mounted by the Dutch Drawing Society and Pulchri Studio, the Hague artists’ society. At Pulchri Studio she exhibited her work on several occasions together with Hendrik. Her work, which was generally well received, could also be seen in Antwerp, London, Paris, Chicago, New York, Venice and Vienna. She maintained good ties with various art dealers, who sold her paintings for sums ranging from 200 to 1,200 guilders. Connoisseurs of art esteemed her still lifes in particular. Although there was less appreciation at first for her landscapes, these were the very pictures that later received the most praise. For Cottages at Sunset and Heath near Ede she was awarded a bronze medal at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, where the paintings were praised for their palette, simplicity, originality and realistic portrayal of nature. Sientje was also criticised, however, for such things as unbalanced composition, lack of a consistent style, excessive detail and her use of overly large canvases.

Sientje Mesdag-van Houten was very active in the Hague art world as a member of Pulchri Studio, whose meetings she frequently attended, and the Dutch Drawing Society. She was also the president of Our Club, a meeting place for cultured women. Mesdag-van Houten kept in touch with other women painters and dedicated herself to the cause of the ‘poor female artist’. From around 1875 she became the nucleus of a group of young women artists who frequently visited her studio and received instruction from her.

From March to August 1881, Sientje Mesdag-van Houten helped her husband paint the famous Mesdag Panorama. There is little surviving documentation on the making of the Panorama, so it is uncertain which part of the canvas – which measures 1,680 square metres – can be attributed to her. Presumably she painted all or part of the village of Scheveningen and/or a great deal of the dunes. Hendrik Willem Mesdag portrayed her in the Panorama, painting at an easel.

Art collection

Sientje and her husband amassed a large art collection comprising nearly 350 works, including paintings, watercolours, drawings and etchings by contemporary artists, with the emphasis on the French painters of the Barbizon School. The collection also contained numerous objets d’art and artefacts from the Netherlands and Asia. The couple had already begun to buy paintings while living in Brussels. In 1887 they had a museum built next to their house in Laan van Meerdervoort in The Hague. Interested parties could request tours of the collection. In 1903 Sientje and Hendrik donated the collection and the museum to the Dutch state, since which time it has been called the Mesdag Museum.

When Sientje Mesdag-van Houten celebrated her seventieth birthday in 1904, the art-loving society of Pictura in Groningen took this opportunity to name a room in their new building after her. Pulchri Studio mounted a retrospective exhibition of her work. This artists’ society also hosted an event honouring her appointment as an Officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau for her contributions to ‘Dutch art and ... the great donation she and her husband made to the Dutch state’ (Clercq and Poort, 93). In an interview in which she looked back on her late-blooming artistic career, she said she had made up for lost time by working hard and diligently studying nature. She emphasised her independence, as noted by the interviewer: ‘Despite her marriage to a renowned marine painter, she does not wish to go down in art history as Mesdag’s wife, but as an independent “heroine of art” who follows her own path and seeks recognition for her original artistic convictions’ (Vrouwke 1904).

Sientje van Houten continued to paint until the very end. Hardening of the arteries led to her death on 20 March 1909. A great many admirers attended her funeral on 23 March, when she was laid to rest at the Oud Eik and Duinen Cemetery in The Hague.


Sientje Mesdag-van Houten was one of the best known and most highly esteemed female artists of her day. After her death, however, her reputation dwindled, and she was seen mainly as the wife of the marine painter Hendrik Willem Mesdag. This changed in 1989. Scholars have since unearthed a great deal of information on her life and work, which has been exhibited regularly ever since. Her paintings are on permanent display in the Mesdag Museum and the Mesdag Panorama in The Hague, thus affording her a place in art history after all.

Author: Hanna Klarenbeek

last updated: 13/01/2014