This autumn the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag is proud to present a major overview of the work of Jacoba van Heemskerck (1876-1923), an artist who made a major contribution to the development of Dutch modern art in the early 20th century. Like Mondrian, Van Heemskerck progressed towards abstract art via Luminism and Cubism. However, research conducted over the last three years shows that her distinctive paintings and drawings were a mere prelude to the stained glass windows that she created at the end of her life. Some of these windows were previously unknown and a number have been restored especially for this exhibition.
Jacoba van Heemskerck trained initially at the Royal Academy in The Hague, later with painter Hart Nibbrig and finally, as Picasso, Munch and Matisse had done, at the studio of Eugène Carrière in Paris. It was there that – most unusually for a woman of her day – she became involved with the latest developments in modern art. Following this formative period in Paris, she was to spend the rest of her life working in The Hague and in Domburg, where she and her life-time companion Marie Tak van Poortvliet built a house and had extensive contact with the Dutch avant-garde. In the course of this period, Tak assembled an impressive artcollection, including works by artists such as Piet Mondrian, Franz Marc, Fernand Léger and Wassily Kandinsky (whose work she introduced to the Netherlands).
Jacoba van Heemskerk’s artistic evolution was very similar to that of Mondrian: both artists were influenced around 1910 by modern movements like Luminism and Cubism, worked together in Domburg and more than once they painted the same subject. Both were inspired by the anthro-posophical ideas of Rudolf Steiner. The result was a visual idiom making extensive use of contrasts: vivid versus muted colours, lines versus planes, horizontals versus verticals. But whereas Mondrian’s artistic approach eventually became austerely geometrical, Van Heemskerck’s developed as a result of a variety of influences (including anthroposophy) into an open, unconstrained and intuitive style. Throughout her life, she would seek – like Kandinsky – to express spiritual experience. The recurring subjects in her oeuvre are therefore invariably symbolic in nature: sailing ships, bridges and trees, depicted in clear, vibrant colours and with firm outlines. Although she was never to abandon the representation of the real world, Van Heemskerck’s style was eventually so abstract that her subjects became virtually unrecognisable. This approach won her great success, especially in Germany, where she exhibited at the Berlin Expressionist gallery Der Sturm every year from 1913 until her death.
Van Heemskerck was almost forgotten when, in 1982, her reputation was revived by an exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum. Her stained glass windows were regarded as a peculiar footnote to the real oeuvre. However, research has shown that the windows are of great significance to her artistic development: the use of the new medium marked the culmination of her quest to link the essence of colour to light. With financial assistance from the Anthroposophical Society in the Netherlands and the Iona Foundation, it has now been possible to restore windows that she designed for the naval barracks in Amsterdam. Amid a host of works lent by owners in the Netherlands and elsewhere, these will form the centrepiece of the forthcoming major overview of the artist’s oeuvre. The exhibition is accompanied by the Dutch-language monograph Jacoba van Heemskerck van Beest, Schilderes uit roeping, by J.F.A. van Paaschen and A.H. Huussen jr. (Waanders Publishers, € 42,50.)