Hoogsteder Journal No. 11

Ships in a Storm off Enkhuizen

A swirling, choppy sea and a mass of menacing clouds is the setting for the ominous drama played out here by Backhuyzen. The painter depicts various aspects of nature’s violent temper. On the right in the foreground two vessels are battling the storm. The waves smash against their sides. The larger vessel has struck its sail, but while it is being furled to the yard the wind plays havoc with the canvas. A sailor in white trousers and a red cap is holding tightly to the mast as he tries to keep control of the billowing cloth. In the ship’s path lies a tiny fishing boat, but it is too late to change course. Using a pole a seaman attempts to keep the smaller vessel out of harm’s way. But the gale is lord and master, and the impending impact inescapable. We can almost hear the sound of cracking wood as the two craft collide.

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Battle at Sea between Hollanders and Pirates

Before us lies a vast expanse of water. Sturdy frigates are depicted against the horizon, bearing down in rhythmic succession. Billowing clouds of smoke rise up, accompanied by an earsplitting thunder. Fire spatters in every direction. Gunshots light up the brass lamp on the foremost vessel amid the smoke of battle. In the haze, the gilded decoration shines through, while the shimmering heat gives the battered sails a warm glow. Calm and unmoved, the cool water reflects the hot metal of the guns.

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Ludolf Backhuyzen, A Princely Painter

Seascapes by Ludolf Backhuyzen are to be found throughout Europe, in museums and in royal collections in palaces and castles, often the highlight of any display of marines. Backhuyzen’s work was already much appreciated in leading circles in his own lifetime. According to the 18th-century biographer Arnold Houbraken, his paintings were much in vogue among foreign rulers. Grand Duke Cosimo de’Medici of Tuscany, King Frederick I of Prussia, the Elector of Saxony and various other German princes visited the artist at his studio on Herengracht to select in person from the paintings he had made.

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Two Majestic Marines

It is unusual to have two major seascapes by Ludolf Backhuyzen in the gallery at the same time. These spectacular paintings would form excellent pendants, since they complement each other perfectly. The two marines form a unique opportunity to view and compare. Together, they show why Backhuyzen is reckoned among the finest marine painters of the 17th century.

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The Fortunes of a Royal Painting

In 1823 the Prince of Orange, the future King William II of the Netherlands (1792-1849), suddenly emerged as a considerable collector of art. In that year he bought no less than 42 paintings. These acquisitions formed the start of a collection which, by the time he died in 1849, contained around 350 pictures. The prince had pronounced preferences. Much of his collection consisted of so-called Flemish Primitives. He also owned works from the Italian, French and Spanish schools, as well as an impressive selection of drawings. But no less than 45 were Dutch and Flemish 17th-century paintings. Among the purchases made in 1823 was our Ships in a Storm off Enkhuizen by Ludolf Backhuyzen.

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Pirates on the Prowl

In the painting of the Battle at Sea between Hollanders and Pirates Backhuyzen portrayed this dramatic scene with verve. The gunfire is almost audible; the victory within reach. Yet which battle did the artist use as a model for his composition, and what was the story behind the engagement? These questions puzzled us for some time, until new details emerged.

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Restoration in Focus

One remarkable aspect of the two marines has not yet been discussed. Ships in a Storm off Enkhuizen and Battle at Sea between Hollanders and Pirates were acquired through two different channels. But in both cases, when we first saw the painting, the sea and the sky were largely painted over. Backhuyzen’s characteristic treatment of the waves and the clouds were not really visible and the colours did not resemble the palette generally associated with the artist. A definitive attribution to Backhuyzen would only be possible after restoration.

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The Life and Times of Ludolf Backhuyzen

In his early years in Amsterdam, Backhuyzen lived in lodgings provided by a leading merchant, Guillelmo Bartolotti, in return for his services as a clerk and calligrapher. Bartolotti lived in a magnificent house on the bend of Herengracht. It was calligraphy that tempted Backhuyzen into trying his hand with a pencil. With encouragement from Bartolotti he began to lay the foundation for his future fame, which acquired new heights when the Van de Veldes left for England in 1672.

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