In The Hague, ten minutes walk from the city centre, is the Panorama Mesdag. Hendrik Willem Mesdag, 1831 – 1915, was a Dutch artist, and in 1880 he, along with a number of helpers, painted a panorama of Scheveningen, a village on the coast, a short distance from the city. The painting, 14 metres high with a circumference of 120 metres, is housed in a purpose built enclosure with a large skylight to provide natural lighting. The ‘centre’ of the panorama was a large sand dune close to the sea. A real circular wooden pavilion, complete with roof, is built in the middle, with real sand and other sea-shore detritus leading down to the bottom edge of the painting. The top edge is concealed by the overhanging roof. Entrance is via a long dark tunnel deliberately designed to disorient the senses.
The effect is breathtaking. I listened to gasps of surprise as visitor after visitor climbed the stairs into the pavilion. The beach, to the north stretches to the horizon in both directions. It is covered in fishing boats, and the army are conducting manoeuvres on horseback. To the south can be seen the city.
The illusion of reality is almost complete. The colours are naturalistic and the lighting adds to the effect – bright when the sun is out, less so when it is overcast.
Panorama Mesdag works on at least three levels: the painting itself is beautiful, naturalistic, late 19th century landscape; it preserves the appearance of Scheveningen in the 1880s – the town has since been vastly developed with wall to wall beach cafes, bars and restaurants together with a large modern, but apparently abandoned, pier; and it is a perfect illusion. It is gratifying that in a time of modern action films and TV with ever more graphic violence, a simple naturally lit spectacle, well over one hundred years old, still has the ability to invoke awe.