In 17th-century Holland, the sea was central to both life and art, inspiring a golden age of marine painting.
The sea has been a subject for figurative art since as early as 12,000 B.C. It first appeared in the form of petroglyphic renderings of ships chiseled in stone. In ancient Greek and Egyptian marine images, the sea vessel was the primary focus, containing historical, social, and mythological significance, carrying epic heroes on legendary adventures (famously the Ulysses paintings) and souls to the afterlife. In ancient art, the sea was merely a pedestal for displaying vessels and narratives about them, sketchily rendered as a collection of lines signifying waves. Although the sea is the very engine of life on earth, in art it remained remote for a surprisingly long time. Perhaps its shifting, often turbulent nature seemed beyond comprehension, and therefore beyond depiction, or maybe its mystery and beauty were taken for granted, visually, its practical role in trade, travel, and life creating a sort of myopia.
It was only toward the end of the Middle Ages that artists began to depict the sea with more attention to detail, as portrayals of ships became more common. The emergence of perspective at the beginning of the Renaissance assigned a central role to distance and proportion, and this development forced a reckoning with what lay beyond a composition’s main action. Incrementally, throughout the Renaissance, European artists would render the world with greater detail, imbuing it with its own beauty and significance. Landscape would eventually emerge as its own genre, and the sea, likewise, would move from mere setting to subject.
The Dutch in the 17th century found themselves at the perfect point of intersection between the evolution of painting and and naval ascendancy. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is focusing on this groundbreaking period of marine painting with “Water, Wind, and Waves: Marine Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age.” The exhibition, which runs from July 1 through November 25, features 45 paintings, drawings, rare books, and ship models and seeks to illustrate the many ways in which the sea, and water in general, figured in Dutch life of the period.
The prevalence of maritime subjects in 16th-century painting marked a significant historical shift. The Mannerists painted fantastical storms, and detailed depictions of historical battles and ships increased in tandem with actual naval warfare. In the 17th century, the economy of the Netherlands was primarily based on the sea trade conducted by the Dutch East India Company, and the navy was remarkably powerful. Dutch ships ruled in battle and in trade, and marine painting reflected this supremacy by depicting notable battles and the nation’s great ships, as earlier works had. Dutch artists presented something more characteristically Flemish, as well, in the form of realistic depictions of daily life that involved water.
In a society of sailors, merchants, and fishermen, it is no surprise to see water assuming a central role in art, but these images presented something new in terms of technical achievement. Earlier marine images took a panoramic, artificial view of the sea, but Dutch works adopted the lower, more human perspective which characterized Renaissance art. Dutch painter Hendrick Vroom (1566–1640) is often cited as the founder of Dutch marine art, and his early works took the bird’s-eye view associated with panoramic depictions of the sea. His later works, however, began to utilize a lower vantage point, and these images exercised great influence on a younger generation of Dutch marine painters. Vroom’s 1614 oil painting A Fleet at Sea, one of the earliest Dutch examples of marine painting, uses this new kind of perspective. It is a fairly straightforward scene of ships at sea, with a ship dead center flying the Dutch flag. The water is rendered with newly subtle effects which seem to parallel those seen in landscape painting. Water in fact, fills a large part of the canvas—dark and foreboding in the foreground and misty and ethereal beyond. The human perspective is key to the work. Despite the title, only three key ships are clearly seen, with another one, lying farther off, rendered with attention to the optical reality of a distant object.
With the sea at the center of Dutch life, marine images were in great demand, and Vroom was ready to capitalize on that. His followers would continue to provide paintings of vessels and the sea, but over time these works would integrate more aspects of water in Dutch life. The incredibly prolific landscape painter Jan van Goyen, who is credited with 1,200 paintings and 1,000 drawings, presents a more modest and perspectivally realistic view of a ship on the water with his 1651 oil on canvas View of Dordecht from the North. The Dutch flag flies a little less majestically atop a leaning ship in seemingly shallow waters. Small reeds stand in the foreground, and a crowded harbor is visible in the distance. The ship is close to shore, and the twisted roots of a tree are rendered with moody detail. The entire image is suffused with a yellowish-gold haze that conveys an effect of light which is both highly realistic and melancholy. The image is quite different from Vroom’s A Fleet at Sea, capturing the simple, slow moment of a boat drifting to shore rather than the heroic sight of ships seemingly heading into battle.
Dordecht native Aelbert Cuyp was one of Holland’s most famous landscape painters, known for his renderings of early morning and late afternoon light. His A Pier Overlooking Dordecht, from the early 1640s, shows his deft skill at depicting otherworldly light. The ships are in the distance, and a windmill is visible on the shore. A group of people waits on the pier, watching the ships. The sky fills much of the canvas, and the clouds range from benignly light to dark gray. As in van Goyen’s view of Dordecht, Holland’s oldest city, the quality of light maintains a yellowish gold, and the ships in the distant are merely hazy ghosts. Both paintings convey the unpredictable nature of life by the water, where ships come to shore only when wind and water allow.
Water factored into Dutch life in ways outside of warfare and trade. Water was central to Dutch leisure, particularly through skating in the winter months. This pastime appears in works by Adam Van Breen and Hendrick Avercamp, in which crowds of skaters play on the ice. Van Breen’s 1611 oil on panel Skating on the Frozen Amstel River takes an elevated view of apparently well-to-do skaters. The image balances merrymaking and realistic details of smoke and a gnarled tree on shore. In the painting, skating seems to be a novel, carnivalesque activity, but the setting is somewhat menacing, as joyful revelry squirms inside winter’s cold grip. Avercamp’s 1625 oil on panel A Scene on Ice gives a much more straightforward take on skating. Figures recede in the distance, and their colorful forms dot a somewhat inhospitable environment. Avercamp’s Winter Games on the Frozen River (1626), in pen and black and gray ink with watercolor, gouache, and graphite on laid paper, shows Hollanders playing hockey and bringing their dogs out on the ice. The frozen water is abuzz with activity, as if Dutch society simply traded its shoes for skates and soldiered on. Images such as these seem to reach across time and let the viewer know that the people of the past were ultimately not so different from ourselves—they, too, were looking for fun and trying to make the best of their situation.
The subtle effects and powerful vision of the Mannerists are more explicitly present in some works of the Dutch Golden Age. Depictions of ships on turbulent seas, navigating rocky passages are rendered with striking skill. Willem van de Velde the Younger 1660 oil on panel, Ships in a Gale is a collection of forms—water, clouds, rocks—that terrorize two ships. Each element is given its own character, but ultimately the natural world, through effects of light, shading, and texture, coalesces into a monolithic beast ready to swallow the helpless vessels. The artist’s rendering of the turbulent water is expert, and the water appears to live as it churns before the viewer’s eyes, crashing against rocks and exploding into foamy peaks. An English Ship Running onto a Rocky Coast in a Gale, a 1690 oil on canvas by van de Velde the Younger, also frames a vulnerable ship with a collection of dark clouds and even darker waters. The sea is another world, an alien landscape where figures in a small rowboat struggle to escape the violence of the storm. For all of the great benefits the sea afforded the Dutch, van de Velde’s troubled seas remind the viewer of its monstrous and deadly possibilities.
The National Gallery’s exhibition also presents drawings and ship models to fill in the picture of water’s place in Dutch life during the 17th century. The Dutch were expert shipbuilders, their shipbuilding industry second to none. The same manufacturers that made full-size ships also produced small-scale models. Dutch State Yacht, a model made in 1690 by an unknown artist from hardwood, linen, brass, iron, mica, and hemp, shows the impressive detail and craftsmanship Dutch shipbuilders were capable of. Drawings by various artists, including Rembrandt van Rijn, give a more intimate vision of the Dutch people’s relationship to the water. In his 1651 etching The Bathers, Rembrandt depicts a small body of water in which men are bathing. The work is nearly a sketch, capturing a very simple moment. It’s a “close-up,” relative to the grand subjects seen in larger marine paintings. And in Canal with a Large Boat and Bridge, an etching and drypoint from 1650, the artist shows a boat moored to the shore with a cityscape beyond. There are no people; it is a lonely, simple image of peaceful reflection.
In large and small ways, water was the stuff of Dutch life during the 17th century. The majesty of the sea can be found in the paintings of the Dutch Golden age, but also its simple, fundamental role, shown in the realistic depictions of daily life which characterize the greatest Flemish works. The more one explores the rich marine painting tradition of Holland, the more the sea awakens something in the viewer’s mind. The living nature of water becomes a more obvious part of our human interiority, and Dutch marine paintings speak to this. Nearly 400 years later, Jacques Cousteau, a man with an intimate relationship to our oceans, observed as much, stating, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” Like the sea, these Dutch masterworks, once we are caught in their net of moody clouds and churning seas, hold us spellbound.
By Chris Shields