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.
Prince William and his Russian princess, Anna Paulovna, resided half the year in The Hague and the other half in Brussels. They preferred the Southern Netherlands, where they enjoyed the more exuberant and flamboyant lifestyle. After their original residence in Brussels, a wing of the Palace of the States General, had been destroyed by fire in 1820, they found a temporary home in a building on Grote Markt (Place Royale). This was where the paintings acquired by the prince in 1823 were displayed, among them our Backhuyzen. In 1829 their new palace, Palais de la Nouvelle Cour, was ready. This remained their residence until the eventual withdrawal of the Dutch from the Southern Netherlands in 1839, when Belgium gained independence. The property which had been seized during the revolt was then released and the paintings were sent to The Hague. Not long after that the prince was installed as King William II of the Netherlands in Amsterdam.
Gothic Palace Complex
It was no easy matter finding space in the palaces in The Hague to house the king’s large and significant collection of paintings. By now they numbered some 130. To solve the problem, the king, himself an enthusiastic amateur architect, took to the drawing board to design a new building in the neo-Gothic style to be constructed alongside his palace on Kneuterdijk in The Hague. In 1841 the new extension was ready and the Gothic Hall, which was designed as an art gallery, was opened. Most of the structure built by the king had to be demolished shortly after since it was in danger of collapse, but the Gothic Hall survives. It is now part of the office complex of the Council of State (Raad van State) and forms the backdrop for the equestrian statue of William the Silent and the Wilhelmina monument, both of which stand opposite Noordeinde Palace.
Art dealer C.J. Nieuwenhuys, who produced the first catalogue of the collection in 1837, was asked by the king in 1842 to produce a second, revised edition. The plan was to publish two simultaneous volumes, one section comprising text, the other plates. For this purpose in the autumn of 1842 the king commissioned the artist Abraham Lion Zeelander to produce a trial line-engraved reproduction. This was not the most modern technique available; the king chose this method to cut costs. The catalogue volume containing text appeared in 1843, the plates appeared five years later, in 1848. These prints provide a highly simplified, but recognisable image of the paintings. For some works whose current location is no longer known, they form the only remaining reference.
As soon as William became king and the collection moved to The Hague, the quality of his acquisitions began to diminish. This was due in part to the fact that the trusted art dealer Nieuwenhuys lost his monopoly as supplier to the court, and had to share his position with others less knowledgeable dealers; at the same time, the king, who now considered himself a connoisseur, increasingly followed his own judgment. As a result, he occasionally laid out excessive sums for mediocre, over-restored or erroneously attributed paintings. A good example is the only other marine in the collection. It had been acquired for a considerable amount as a work by the famous Willem van de Velde the Younger, but has since been identified as being by the Rotterdam painter Lieve Verschuier.
Following the sudden death of William II on 17 March 1849, his heirs – King William III, Prince Hendrik the Seafarer, and Princess Sophie, Grand Duchess of Saxe-Weimar – received a nasty surprise. Their father had left so many debts that they were forced to accept their inheritance under benefit of inventory. The world-famous painting collection, clearly the most valuable of the former monarch’s possessions, turned out to have been pledged as security to their uncle Tsar Nicholas I of Russia for a loan of one million guilders. Prince Hendrik and Princess Sophie (the new king kept his distance from the whole affair) had been under the impression, doubtless influenced by their father’s enthusiasm that the art collection was worth far more than the sum for which the former monarch had mortgaged it. In the end, their Dutch uncle, Prince Frederik, agreed to pay off the debt to the tsar. The way was now clear to offer the paintings in a public sale. Meanwhile, they owed their father’s brother 1,070,000 guilders: the principal sum with interest.
Auction in the Gothic Hall
The sale was placed in the hands of the Amsterdam firm of Jeronimo de Vries, C.F. Roos and J.A. Brondgeest, who were among the most successful auctioneers in the country. They agreed to waive the vendor’s commission for their efforts in this prestigious, but confidential business. Only the buyer had to pay seven percent on top of the sale price. The now aged court painter and former court portraitist Jan Baptist van der Hulst was asked to value the paintings. His estimates served as reserve price for the sale. It was hoped to attract international buyers and thereby to exceed the anticipated yield of 1,100,000 guilders. The auction was set for 12-19 August 1850 and the location was the Gothic Hall in The Hague, where the paintings had been displayed since 1842.
Despite the high hopes of the vendors and the auctioneers, the foreign agents and art dealers, many of whom were acting for collectors and museums, did not make the sale a success. Only 771,059 guilders was raised, over 250,000 less than had been anticipated. More than half the old masters failed to reach their reserve price and had to be withdrawn. It was now painfully clear that, especially in his last years as a collector, the former king had regularly taken mediocre paintings to be masterpieces. His heirs were therefore unable to pay off their debt to Prince Frederik. They eventually solved the problem by offering him a choice of twenty old masters and four contemporary works from among the unsold items and by undertaking to sell the remainder of the collection in a second auction the following year.
Backhuyzen to Amsterdam
The marine by Ludolf Backhuyzen, one of the finest works in the collection, found a buyer in the first auction without any problem. The painting went for 5,650 guilders, making it the sixth most valuable Dutch old master. It was exceeded only by the portraits of Jan Pellicorne and his wife Susanna van Collen by Rembrandt (sold for 30,200 guilders the pair), a Watermill by Meindert Hobbema (27,000 guilders), a Landscape by Jacob van Ruisdael and Adriaen van de Velde (12,900 guilders), a large Family Portrait by Bartolomeüs van der Helst (11,900 guilders) and an Italian Landscape by Jan Both (10,400 guilders).
The new owner of the marine was an Amsterdam businessman, politician and collector, Baron Arnold Willem van Brienen. This magnificently wealthy nobleman possessed no less than 64 paintings by 17th-century masters in his home at Herengracht 182 in Amsterdam, some of which were displayed in a special gallery that was open to the public.
The Van Brienen collection echoes the tastes of King William II’s, although the former monarch possessed more works and their range was wider, since they included Flemish Primitives, works from the Italian, French and Spanish schools, contemporary art and drawings. It is interesting to note that Baron van Brienen kept a copy of the Galerij Koning William II plates in his gallery. This was evidently the album of line engravings by Zeelander which included a reproduction of the Ludolf Backhuyzen.
Old versus Modern Art
After Arnold Willem van Brienen’s death in 1854, his son Willem Thierry van Brienen became the new owner of the house on Herengracht and its contents. The old master collection interested him little; Willem Thierry preferred contemporary art, of which he was an avid collector. He lived with his family in The Hague, originally on Korte Voorhout and from 1858-1863 in the newly constructed house at Lange Voorhout 56, now Hotel des Indes. When it was built, an art gallery was incorporated in the design on the first floor (on the right viewed from the street). Here Willem Thierry displayed a large part of his collection of 296 contemporary paintings. The rest of the house was also filled with modern art of the period. Meanwhile, he maintained his father’s collection and the house in Amsterdam. But after Willem Thierry van Brienen’s death on 9 April 1863 the Amsterdam house was vacated. It stood empty for years and was subsequently rented out.
All in the Family
On 8 and 9 May 1865 the old masters from the Van Brienen collection came up for public auction in Paris. The sale opened with our painting of Ships in a Storm by Ludolf Backhuyzen. The glowing description in the catalogue concludes by commending that ‘This painting is distinguished by its superb execution and brilliant colours. The latter quality is relatively rare in compositions by Backhuyzen, who generally tended in works of this genre towards black (qui ont poussé généralement au noir, dans les effets de ce genre).’ The painting sold for 11,000 francs, a sum that did not much exceed the purchase price paid by Van Brienen in 1850 (5,992 guilders) or William II in 1823 (6,045 guilders). The buyer was a Frenchman, Count Charles Joseph François de Mercy-Argenteau. In fact the painting remained in the family: Count de Mercy was Willem Thierry van Brienen’s brother-in-law, husband of the latter’s sister Adelaïde Henriëtte Angélique.
No New is Good News
For the next eighty-eight years nothing was heard of Backhuyzen’s Ships in a Storm. As far as we know, the painting was not sold at public auction or exhibited in any museum. It seems therefore that it remained in the possession of the same family and was passed down by inheritance. Details regarding this period have yet to be found.
Madame X and Monsieur Y
In 1953 the painting’s trail resurfaces. That is the year of the marriage of an unknown Madame X to our equally anonymous Monsieur Y. Among the property Monsieur Y brought into the marriage was the painting by Backhuyzen which he had inherited from his father. The picture remained in Madame X’s possession after his death. When the couple’s heirs eventually offered the Collection de Madame X for sale in London in 2004, Backhuyzen’s marine was one of the lots. Since the name of the last owners was kept confidential at their own request, no further research has been possible into the painting’s provenance in this period. After all, in a case like this the family’s wishes should be respected.
All we know is that Madame X was born in Canada, lived in Paris in the 1950s and ’60s and that she remarried in 1953. In 1960 she organised the Son-et-Lumière (sound and light show) at Château de la Palice near Vichy with the famous light artist Paul-Robert Houdin. She owned a yacht, the Corbleu, in which she sailed on the Mediterranean in the summer months. And she bought her clothes at Parisian haute couture houses such as Cardin, Balmain and Pucci, as would have befitted the image we have of this mysterious woman. In short, from the little we know of her, she was clearly a society lady. Some thirty years ago, following her daughter’s marriage to a member of the British aristocracy, she moved to England. Which explains why the painting eventually came up for sale in London.
Backhuyzen’s painting, Ships in a Storm, has a remarkable history in which fate has dealt some surprising blows over the years. Because King William II left more debts than assets the work had to be sold. If things had worked out differently, it might now be part of the art collection of the House of Orange-Nassau. Or perhaps it might have come into the possession of the Tsar of Russia, to be displayed eventually at the Hermitage in St Petersburg. But fortunately, history took a different turn. All the collections to which our Backhuyzen has belonged over the years have been dispersed. Eventually the painting came up for auction in London, and we were able to acquire it. We are proud to have been able to return this royal painting back to the Netherlands after more than 150 years abroad.
William II was born on 6 December 1792 in The Hague, the eldest son of the future William I and Wilhelmina of Prussia. When the French revolutionary armies invaded Holland in January 1795, the Prince of Orange and his family fled the country. The young William spent his years in exile in England and Berlin. After studying at Oxford and a broken engagement to the British Princess Charlotte, he began a military career, becoming adjutant to the Duke of Wellington on his campaigns in the Peninsular War and taking part in the decisive battles against Napoleon at Quatre-Bras and Waterloo (1815). He was wounded at Waterloo and had to be carried from the field. This earned him the nickname Hero of Waterloo, and in addition a Russian bride. In February 1816, in a magnificent ceremony in St Petersburg, he married Anna Paulovna, the younger sister of tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I.
William’s private life was as turbulent as his military career. He was involved in conspiracies and plots on more than one occasion. He and his ostentatious wife preferred Brussels to The Hague. But the Belgian Revolt of 1830 brought an end to this period of his life. As the head of the Dutch army he had to lead his forces against the insurgent Belgians, whom he so loved. Moreover, he was forced to move his residence to the Northern Netherlands.
When his father abdicated in 1840, he was installed as King William II. In 1848, as he himself declared, he was converted ‘overnight from conservative to liberal’. It is to him, therefore, that the Dutch owe their first constitution. A year later, on 17 March 1849, he died suddenly of a heart attack, aged 57.