Suze Robertson. Dedicated. Self-willed. Modern.

Sue Robertson. Dedicated. Self-willed. Modern.

exhibition Museum Panorama Mesdag 2023

Wimmie Hofstra, MA @Hofculture copyright

The work of Suze Robertsons (1855-1922) from The Hague is characterized by personal style development, which is more individual and daring than many of her contemporaries. Dedicated. Self-willed. Modern. It is the right tagline for the exhibition about her work in Museum Panorama Mesdag. Robertson lived in an interesting time when a radical change was taking place in art. In her working years, firm steps were taken towards modern Dutch art, towards ‘Mondrian’, abstract paintings with black lines and surfaces in the colors red, blue and yellow. A possible direction towards that abstraction arose under Robertson’s modeling hands: ‘everything is matter’ closes the introduction to the exhibition. And where that experimentation with that matter can lead you can see right away halfway through Robertson’s initial period. You don’t have to wait long for it.

Powerful drawings of chalk

It starts with drawings of an exotic model with very strong lines in black chalk on paper. Robertson made this at Pulchri Studio, the artists’ association in The Hague, where Van Gogh had also drawn from a model earlier. The powerful lines that you see here are continued in the penultimate room, where it will be really tasty with the various Vischpoorts of Harderwijk in yellow, red, blue and white, but which I – except for the image below – will not consider further. because this story is about something else and yes, you have to go and see for yourself of course…

Detail of one of the Vischpoorts of Harderwijk that Robertson made in 1908-1909

Comparing is the art of discovery

Last month I visited this exhibition with the members of the Association of Dutch Art Historians (VNK), which can be seen until 5 March. Art and art history are by definition placed in a context and never isolated. We build on the work of others and are always in dialogue. Imitate and emulate – imitate and compete, with the aim of surpassing each other, whether in art history or art. We are building on a database that all predecessors have built together. Innovation is then important and Suze Robertson innovates in a number of areas; the choice of subject, the treatment of the paint surface, the journey to abstraction and entering into the experiment.

It is understandable that the exhibition organizers do not initially want to compare Suze Robertson with Van Gogh (1853-1890), as they indicate both in the accompanying film material and in the lecture beforehand. Nevertheless, I can’t resist. After all, I wrote a book about Van Gogh in The Hague. But of course comparison does not have to go so far that the artist loses his individuality. Suze Robertson was indeed not a female Van Gogh, nor was Van Gogh a male Suze Robertson. And indeed Robertson deserves to be given his own place as an innovator and pioneer for the modern.

Misfits at the Hague School

Why then is such a comparison so obvious? At least for the early days of both. Van Gogh’s working period in The Hague was 1881-1883, his initial period as an independent artist. Robertson started in the year that Van Gogh left The Hague in 1883. The exhibition organizers put her starting period at 1890, the year of Van Gogh’s death. Van Gogh and Robertson lived in The Hague at about the same time and were both misfits. The Hague was the art city of Holland. Here it happened. The Hague School painters, internationally renowned for their painting of Dutch meadows and beach scenes, worked here in a new kind of realism. Both were in the midst of these artists, literally and figuratively, and yet they were different. Also in relation to each other. The roads that are followed by both are different and so is the end result. The comparison does not work there, at least not as a similarity. Perhaps we could argue that if Van Gogh had stayed in The Hague, his work would have taken the turn Robertson took. But of course you can’t know that. An important difference is that Robertson’s work quickly gets acclaim, so she never lacked appreciation. We cannot say that about Van Gogh.

The fringe of society, the same side

The special thing about Van Gogh in his period in The Hague is that he did something different from his contemporaries. In addition to the beach and the meadows, he also focused on the city, where the social imbalance was clearly visible with industrialization. It was precisely the lower stratum of society and the frayed edge of the city that attracted his attention. But Van Gogh’s work in The Hague consisted mainly of drawing (and watercolor) and the formats were small until he eventually left the city.

The first drawing that Van Gogh sold was of Paddemoes (1882). Paddemoes, the Jewish quarter around the Nieuwe Kerk, was a deprived neighborhood where Van Gogh and Breitner did inspect the poetry. Dilapidated courtyards, dilapidated neighbourhoods, the working man who struggled on for his existence, or the person without a home and hearth looking for a full stomach. Van Gogh drew a lot in The Hague. Partly because the budget was not really sufficient, he wanted to master the profession and/or because he simply could not handle his budget very well and these materials were affordable

Drawing Van Gogh at the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague

’ Uncle Cor (C.M.) sees a drawing of ‘het Paddemoes’, seen from the Turfmarkt. ’ At first he said nothing more, until we came across a little drawing that I had sketched at 12 o’clock one night while strolling with Breitner, viz. the Paddemoes (that Jewish neighborhood near the new church) seen from the Turfmarkt. … Could you make me more of those cityscapes,’ said C.M. J… “Make 12 like that for me.”

The figures have not been captured very well yet, but what is so nice about the drawing is that you can read all the posters exactly on the wall near the church. One is from a Spanish Bal Masqué. You often see this kind of readable posters in his drawings. A kind of comic book avant la lettre you can say irreverently.

Detail drawing Van Gogh at the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague

The period after The Hague

In the period after The Hague, in Nuenen, Van Gogh also focused on ‘ordinary’ struggling people. Here, in 1885, he painted the peasant population, the ‘potato eaters’, who lived off domestic industry and arable farming; a real painting and of a decent size too. Is he registering these people or is it a social charge? Whoever reads Van Gogh’s letters reads an enormous depth and color in his almost philosophical thoughts.

The spinning wheel, loom and the pasture as a source of income. Man plods on. You also see those subjects with Robertson, staged a bit more, that is. For a number of years she painted with creamy paint in a similar way and with the same color scheme as Van Gogh in Nuenen. Take, for example, the painting of a branch-breaker in the exhibition, in which it is particularly interesting how she brings up falling twigs with a few touches of orange-yellow, which stand out against the ocher colors of the image. It’s a snapshot. The twigs are falling, a kind of baroque genre scene in the 19th century. No stillness here, but action.

Detail twig breaker Suze Robertson

The choice of subjects by Van Gogh and Robertson therefore corresponds, and sometimes the use of color too.

Size does matter

Robertson photographs almshouses whose homes have already been rejected and thus declared uninhabitable. How do we know? (I mean uninhabitable) You can read it on the picture itself. But this announcement is not reflected in the painting she subsequently makes of it.

Above photo of Suze Robertson and below the final painting without legible text

While Van Gogh’s works are topographically correct cityscapes, Robertson’s compositions are made up of color blocks. You can clearly see that in the huge paintings that hang here. And size does matter! Robertson already knew that. That is precisely what is revolutionary. But also the paint treatment. Stucco houses are really stucco. The layers of paint are applied thick and firm. It concerns large volumes. Van Gogh would have had no budget for the size of the canvas and the amount of paint used in his period in The Hague. He already has to watch out that he doesn’t get kicked out of his house if he misses a payment term.

Color planes placed against each other

With Robertson, the picture elements are arranged in a geometrical order in the plane. Large areas of color next to each other. One of the most impressive paintings is of an alley in Leidschendam (1889). The sweeping woman is illuminated from inside the house. Those light and dark contrasts really come across as powerful. This painting was already an eye-catcher in 1889 during an exhibition of contemporary art in The Hague. A true debate piece, which critics were for or against. And here too: size does matter. The message gets across.

One of Suze Robertson’s most powerful paintings


It was not surprising that Robertson had problems working in the slums of The Hague (as indicated in the text). Being a woman certainly did not play the decisive role in this. Van Gogh also encountered a lot of opposition in those neighborhoods in The Hague. He dressed on it when he went to paint there, but the workers just saw through that. He describes very well the reactions of the residents, even the spitting at his work.

More Mondrian than Van Gogh

The bleaching fields are another typical Van Gogh subject from his time in The Hague. One of the most beautiful and successful watercolors by Van Gogh. Robertson does this very differently. But that result may also be there and is really not comparable.

The bleaching fields, watercolor by Van Gogh from his time in The Hague

In Leur (1895-1898) Robertson also takes up this subject. In the vicinity of Robertson’s house were bleaching fields, where linen was bleached in the sun.

The Bleaching Fields, details of works by Suze Robertson

The works remind me more of Mondrian, who made his experimental landscapes around 1898, of which the Kunstmuseum in The Hague has a number of them. As a title, this work by Robertson could also be called composition of colored areas. And if we do have to compare, then I would rather do that with Mondrian. On the way to the modern… With the Vischpoorts as an intermediate step.

An experimental landscape by Mondrian from the Kunstmuseum

More research

First of all my compliments to Museum Panorama Mesdag for this great exhibition. It has been fairly unexplored territory. That, of course, makes it interesting. It also provides extra space for dialogue. And let’s close with that:

When you place two works next to each other from the last and penultimate room, the portraits seem to be about one and the same person. Even the clothes match. It is a comparison of the portrait of Siska and Girl with book/Sitting girl. Could not the portrait of Siska, ca. 1910-1915, which is rightly said to be one of the most expressive and progressive works of her oeuvre, be one and the same person? The portrait is very similar to the Girl with a Book from around 1908, which, according to notes in one of Robertson’s sketchbooks, could be identified as Rachel Blik from Bezemstraat, Paddemoes in other words. Yet back to Vincent van Gogh’s The Hague regions…

One and the same figure?