Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast

‘Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast’ (1667), oil on canvas by Ludolf Backhuysen, can be seen in ‘Water, Wind, and Waves’ at the National Gallery of Art through Sunday.

Better than just show paintings in an exhibit, “Water, Wind, and Waves: Marine Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age” at the National Gallery of Art features five model ships that are themselves works of art.

The political, economic and social life of 17th-century Dutch Golden Age was totally dependent on the mastery of the high seas and control of inland waterways. The Dutch ship-building industry was the best in Europe in its time and that expertise spilled into an enthusiasm that found expression in ship models.

Constructed of hardwood, mahogany, fruitwood and oakwood, with fabrics like silk, cotton and linen, and material like mica, brass, hemp and cordage, these model ships are positioned throughout the exhibit on carved French walnut tables. Manufactured by the producers of large ships, they were used both as ornamental display as well as valuable documents of Dutch naval architecture.

“The Royal James, 1st Rate of 1671” at the entrance to the exhibit is actually a British ship—attributed to Sir Anthony Dean—that was sunk by the Dutch. What remained was this model created for the British admiralty that is accurate down to details of movable canons on deck.

The four anonymous Dutch 17th-century models provide a chance to examine ships like those in the paintings up close. The model ships share the attention to realistic practical details, like the leeboards on the side of the ships.

The paintings are arranged to flow from individual portraits of ships to scenes recording great sea battles, from those drawn from real life to those where water and wind represent symbols of powerful natural or supernatural forces.

Many of the maritime artists were personally connected to their subject. Hendrick Cornelis Vroom, who started life as a seaman and was even once shipwrecked, had firsthand knowledge of the details of naval architecture. His “A Fleet at Sea” shows the encompassing range of Dutch naval and economic power, with a majestic 24-gun Dutch warship in a harbor along with domestic coastal fishing and cargo boats.

There are famous battle scenes like Aelbert Cuyp’s impressive “The Maas at Dordrecht.” There are also works like Abraham de Verwer’s “View of Hoorn” that shows activities in a peaceful busy harbor. Sailors on a fluit (a large sailing ship) are raising cargo from a wijdschip (a smaller boat). In the background, is the city view of a harbor filled with many masts.

Life was not all work and no play. The Dutch enjoyed their waterways. In summer, there was swimming, which Rembrandt depicts in his etching “The Bathers” of men in an isolated pond on a hot summer’s day.

The winters were severe—some called it the Little Ice Age. All ages and classes enjoyed skating, playing kolf (something between ice hockey and golf), ice fishing and sleigh riding.

The most delightful works of these pastimes are Hendrick Avercamp’s drawing and watercolor “Winter Games on the Frozen River Ijssel” and Adam van Breen’s “Skating on the Frozen Amstel River.” In contrast is Ludolf Backhuysen’s “Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast,” and others that depict severe battles that ships at sea wage against raging winds and waves. In juxtaposition, these vastly different themes remind that the power of water is both perilous and pleasurable.

Inland waterways and canals were the infrastructure of a communication and transportation system vital to the nation. In an age when roads were unreliable, ferries enabled traveling in a few hours between cities. This is reflected in paintings like Salomon van Ruysdael’s “River Landscape with Ferry,” which shows all sorts of passengers along with their horses, and Jan van Goyen’s “View of Dordrecht from the Dordtse Kil,” where smaller boats are used to load larger vessels.

Among the more unique works is a “pen in painting” by Willem van de Velde the Elder. “Dutch Ships Near the Coast” is a black and white oil-and-ink panel that appears to be an etching. There are also dozens of etchings of ships in Amsterdam Harbor by Reinier Nooms called Zeeman (or seaman), who was also a sailor as well as painter.

The customers for these maritime artworks included the admiralties, magistrates and municipal organizations. The Dutch East and West India companies, which were formed in the early 1600s, and their investors acquired paintings representing the source of their maritime commercial successes. With prosperity, the Dutch were able to acquire fine art for their homes.

From perilous adventures on the high seas of battling fierce storms and enemy warships to the pleasurable scenes of the prosperous life from their seafaring industries, the life of the Dutch revolved around water. Unlike the nobility of old, these were ordinary people, who worked at professions like merchants and sailors and tradesmen. Their maritime achievements and the works that their artists created are truly remarkable.

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