He studied in Brussels with Willem Roelofs and in 1868 moved to The Hague to paint the sea. In 1870 he exhibited at the Paris Salon and won the gold medal for The Breakers of the North Sea.
In 1880 he received a commission from a Belgian company to paint a panorama giving a view over the village of Scheveningen on the North Sea coast near The Hague. With the help of Sina and students he completed the enormous painting, Panorama Mesdag,— 14 m high and 120 m around — by 1881. However, the vogue for panoramas was coming to an end, and when the company operating it went bust in 1886, Mesdag purchased the painting at auction and thereafter funding its operating losses from his own pocket.