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.
Ludolf Backhuyzen was born on 28 December 1630 in the East Frisian town of Emden, the son of Gerhard Bachhuys, municipal secretary of Emden, and Margarete Janssen. Shortly after the Treaty of Munster was signed in 1648 he left for Amsterdam.
Having arrived in the Dutch capital, ‘the goddess of the arts drew him to her school’, as Arnold Houbraken noted almost a century later in his Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen. In lyrical terms he describes how Backhuyzen ‘was able to emulate nature wonderfully and that this is the reason why his art was highly desired at most royal courts’. Among his teachers, Houbraken mentions the landscapist Allard van Everdingen, ‘the first to place a palette of paints and a brush in his hand’, and the marine artist Hendrik Dubbels, ‘whose straightforward approach proved an enormous boon’. The former probably taught Backhuyzen the technical skills of painting, while the latter – himself a student of Simon de Vlieger – presumably showed him the tricks of the trade as a marine artist. Backhuyzen soon outshone his teachers and it has been suggested that Dubbels later served as Backhuyzen’s chef d’atelier for many years.
Links with the Sea
Backhuyzen’s earliest dated painting was made in 1656. This was certainly not the first work he ever painted. The sources refer to dated works from 1649 and 1650, but where these are now is no longer known. It is clear, however, that by 1658 he had built up such a reputation as a marine artist that the famous Amsterdam portrait painter Bartholomeüs van der Helst asked him to paint the ships in the backgrounds of his portraits of nautical heroes.
Although Backhuyzen also painted landscapes and portraits, it was his seascapes that were his main focus. He also depicted recent events that were linked to the sea, such as the Landing of the King-Stadholder at Oranjepolder on 31 January 1691 (Mauritshuis, The Hague) or biblical scenes, such as the Shipwreck of the Apostle Paul (Ostfriesisches Landesmuseum, Emden). City views also feature prominently in his oeuvre. In 1665 Backhuyzen was commissioned by the Amsterdam magistracy to produce a large painting of the city viewed from the IJ. The work was presented to the French ambassador and now hangs at the Musée du Louvre in Paris. This prestigious commission established his name as a painter.
After the death of his second wife, Catharina Bevel, in 1662, Backhuyzen rented a house in Hoorn on the Zuiderzee. A number of his paintings show the West Frisian coastline and the recognisable characteristic skyline of the town of Enkhuizen. The waves too are almost portraits. The Zuiderzee, today’s IJsselmeer lake, is notorious for its choppy seas. This distinguishes it from its neighbour, the North Sea, where the movement of the waves is longer and heavier. Following the death of his third wife, Alida Greffet, in 1678, Backhuyzen visited England. This period is recorded in a number of paintings dated 1679 and 1680 portraying views of the English coast.
The artist reached the height of his financial success during his fourth marriage, to Anna de Hooghe, whom he married in 1680 in Amsterdam. She was the niece of the famous engraver and etcher Romeyn de Hooghe. Archive records show that the family lived on Amsterdam’s Herengracht.
Backhuyzen left a considerable oeuvre of a quality that remained consistently high throughout his career. For over half a century, from 1656 to 1708, he devoted himself with dedication to his artistic passion. His work reveals a uniquely inventive character. He never repeated himself and rarely borrowed from other artists. Several pupils completed their apprenticeship at his studio, but unlike his colleagues he did not take his inspiration from them. After his main rivals, Willem van de Velde the Elder and the Younger, had left for England around 1672, Ludolf Backhuyzen enjoyed an unchallenged hegemony in the world of Dutch marine painting.
The ultimate accolade came in 1699, when the Amsterdam magistracy commissioned him, together with Michiel van Musscher (1645-1705), to set up an art academy in a room in the town hall, the building now known as the Royal Palace on Dam Square. Here paintings were shown in public exhibitions and art lessons were given to promising young painters. Backhuyzen’s studio was a seedbed of new talent. He trained a whole flotilla of artists, among the more prominent of whom were Michiel Maddersteeg, Pieter Coopse, Abraham Storck, Wigerus Vitringa, Gerard Pompe, Jan Claesz and Hendrik Rietschoof.
Ludolf Backhuyzen remained active until late in life. He died in the night of 6 and 7 November 1708. Five days later he was buried at the Westerkerk in Amsterdam. But his spirit lives on in his paintings.