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Dutch art at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis

The RKD's own collection contains an archive of the Dutch art department at the 1904 World Fair, which was held in St. Louis (Missouri, USA). RKD intern Julia Krikke has spent the past 6 months studying valuable documents in this archive.

The archive was assembled by the well-known painter and entrepreneur Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831-1915), who was responsible for the exhibition of Dutch art in St. Louis in his role as governmental commissioner. The archive material on Mesdag's activities for this exhibition were part of a donation made in 1970 by Mrs. W.H.A. van Houten, and contains a series of gallery photos, completed registration forms and a collection of around 25 letters from and to Mesdag and others involved in the fair. The documents contain valuable information on the history of individual paintings and also offer a sneak peek behind the scenes of the exhibition.


Breitners at the World Fair

For example, the archive shows that George Hendrik Breitner submitted two works for the exhibition which are now both part of the Rijksmuseum collection: The Singel Bridge at the Paleisstraat in Amsterdam and The Damrak in Amsterdam. The gallery photos in the archive show that these paintings hung on the central, and therefore best, position on the wall at the stand. Breitner's work was praised by the Amsterdam press and even received a golden medal by the international jury.

However, despite all the attention neither of the works were sold. This could have been the result of the relatively high asking prices. For while The Singel Bridge had exchanged hands a year earlier (1903) for f 5,250, the initial price for the work in St. Louis was nearly triple this. Perhaps they thought they could cash in on the prosperous American potential buyers. Breitner’s exhibitor pass, also part of the archive, shows that the prices were later lowered.


Profits

The sales figures of the Dutch art department were on the whole disappointing. Halsey C. Ives – the American dead of department of fine art at the World Fair – relayed his thoughts on this in a letter to Mesdag, saying that this was in part due to the sky high prices which the young Dutch artists were asking for their works.

Mesdag however put the disappointing sales down to the fact that "St. Louis is not a city that is held in high regard", as he wrote in his closing report. Despite this he concluded that taking part in the fair was a success, and he spoke of his trust in that "this Exhibition has benefited the Dutch Artists."

1. George Hendrik Breitner. The Singel Bridge at the Paleisstraat in Amsterdam, 1898. Oil on canvas, 100 x 152 cm. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum.
2. Gallery at the Dutch Art department in St. Louis.
3. George Hendrik Breitner's exhibitor pass.


Julia Krikke studied for her research master in Arts of the Netherlands at the University of Amsterdam. She was an intern at the RKD for eleven months during which she carried out her thesis project into the presentation and reception of contemporary Dutch art in the United States around 1900 under the supervision of Chris Stolwijk.