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.

Drama

A first sight, the effect of both Ships in a Storm off Enkhuizen and Battle at Sea between Hollanders and Pirates is overwhelming. This is due in no small part to their formidable size. They are among the relatively few paintings in Backhuyzen’s oeuvre that measure more than 1.25 metres in width. The subjects are no less impressive. The Storm depicts the impotence of man in the face of nature’s immense power. Yet the painting also offers hope: the large frigate has survived the gale almost unscathed, with only its main mast lost. In that section of the canvas the sky breaks open and the sun shines through. With supreme skill Backhuyzen divided the composition into two halves: on the right, dark and forbidding; on the left, light and optimistic. Between these flies a proud, untouched Dutch tricolour.
In the Battle at Sea the story is different. The sea is calm, the setting sun gives the evening sky a pinkish hue. In this painting it is not nature that provides the drama, but man. Battle has been joined and the quiet of a summer’s day is broken by powder smoke and gunshot.

Lyrical

Both scenes are portrayed on canvas with enormous conviction. They are so convincing that you almost feel part of what is taking place. This was Backhuyzen’s great strength. He painted more than what you see, he painted what you feel. In that respect he can be compared to Rembrandt or Ruisdael, who were able to inject life into their paintings, and to give their portraits and landscapes a certain lyricism. Rembrandt gave his subjects character and personality. Jacob van Ruisdael imbued his landscapes with a sense of overwhelming power: the feeling of awe you sometimes get when walking in the country. In the same way, Backhuyzen painted more than just ships at sea. He brings the human predicament to life, the struggle and strife in the drama of omnipotent and capricious nature.

Changes of Sky and Water

For centuries, people have been fascinated by the way the world’s greatest painters have managed to capture this extra dimension. Backhuyzen had acquired an amazing technique with the brush and was blessed with tremendous artistic talent. Moreover, the sea, ships and weather held an enormous appeal for him. His 18th-century biographer Arnold Houbraken describes how the artist used to seek inspiration in the open air and how he used to go sailing to see for himself how the condition of the sky and the water changed. ‘When the weather gods were at their least propitious was when he most loved to board a boat (which few would have enjoyed) and sail to the mouth of the sea.’ His observations, which he recorded in pencil on paper and transferred to paint in his studio, were direct impressions of nature. Backhuyzen amazed his contemporaries with the atmosphere he managed to breathe into his marines. He was able to give each of his seascapes their own individual character. Both the Storm and the Battle at Sea testify to this remarkable quality.

Ominous Skies

In Ships in a Storm this sense of drama is expressed in the tempestuous sky and the turbulent sea. Above the impending collision of the fishing boats in the bottom right corner the sky is black and sombre; above the battered ship the clouds have parted and skies have opened. With this contrast between light and dark Backhuyzen split the picture in two. He combined the two dramas with two accompanying weather situations to form a single painting. The palette for the clouds ranges from pink, blue, light grey to dark grey hues. By creating variations within these tints Backhuyzen created a rich and yet restrained colouration. Rain is falling in the distance, but is only visible on closer inspection. We see more and more. Just as in a real storm, conditions change constantly. Sea and sky are in continual motion. The result is a compelling lyricism that contributes magnificently to the dramatic events in the painting.

Dutch Seas

In his depiction of the sea in the Storm Backhuyzen surpasses many of his colleagues. It is in fact a portrait of the Zuiderzee, today’s IJsselmeer, which is notorious for its choppy seas. Every colour appears in the waves: white, yellow, brown, green and blue, but the dominant impression is one of greyish brown, precisely the colour of these rough waters today. It gives the sea an ominous character. A stroke of genius is the small transparent triangle where light and dark meet, in which the water has a translucent ochre colour. Anyone familiar with the Dutch seas will recognise the phenomenon when viewing the painting. But Backhuyzen has also managed to convey the power of the Zuiderzee. As the waves break, they appear to rise up, an effect achieved by the rapid, bright white brushwork with which the foam is rendered. In the distance lies the ultimate identification point. A beam of sunlight illuminates the silhouette of the town of Enkhuizen, on the west coast of the Zuiderzee, then still open to the North Sea.

Expert on Ships

An entirely different aspect of Backhuyzen’s reputation rests on the accuracy with which he depicted ships. This is based on the numerous studies and drawings he made. Houbraken notes that the artist began at the age of nineteen to make life drawings of the shipbuilding industry, without ever having been shown how to draw or how to handle a pencil. This was shortly after his arrival in Amsterdam. Throughout his life he continued to study ship construction. As Houbraken remarks: that was the basis on which he built, eventually reaching a stage that the reputation of his art resounded around much of the world.
Backhuyzen depicted the masts and rigging with meticulous precision. In Ships in a Storm we can see the tension in the stays. They bend, stretched to their limit by the force of the wind. The main mast of the large frigate was apparently lost in the storm. It was quickly lashed to the side. The ropes of the broken mast are thrown out in all directions, now that they are no longer held in place.

Sea of Masts

Backhuyzen’s ability to portray ships comes into its own in the Battle at Sea. The painting shows three groups of vessels, converging on each other, embroiled in violent battle. In the foremost cluster Backhuyzen reveals his artistic skill in distinguishing between different sets of masts and sails. The yards, stays, rigging and masts are more than convincingly portrayed. They are aesthetically planned, placed in pleasing rhythmic succession. At the same time, the sails tell their own story too. In the blaze of the gunfire and the sun breaking through, each sail has a different colour, a combination of numerous different hues and nuances. With his artistic interplay of rhythm, movement, depth and colour Backhuyzen foreshadowed Mondrian’s abstract painting by some 300 years.

Composer

The powerful sense of rhythm, movement, depth and colour which is evident in the detail, was also used by Backhuyzen in the overall composition. Together, the three static groups of ships convey a rhythmic motion that leads the eye across the entire canvas. The further the ships from the viewer, the less intense the colours that Backhuyzen employs. It is not nature, but man that Backhuyzen’s composition relies on here. The sea and the clouds are merely the setting for man’s thirst for action.

Flesh and Blood People

Apart from Backhuyzen’s astonishingly accurate depiction of ships, the figures that populate his marines are also highly suggestive. The appearance of the seamen in the Storm is remarkably realistic. The desperate gestures of the men in the ships in the foreground speak volumes. Disaster may strike at any moment. In theBattle at Sea we see men on the quarterdeck engaged in combat. Despite the minute depiction, they represent an essential part of the painting’s narrative content.

Man as Subject and Object

Something quite separate from the technique of painting is the effect that a picture has on the viewer. At first sight, the depiction of the Battle at Sea seems rather static. The powerful frigates bob about on the waves as they move inexorably closer. The darker patch of water – caused by the shadow of a cloud – places a distance between the viewer and the ships. It is as if you are watching this tremendous encounter from a ship well out of range in the evening sun. And what a fight it is. The pirates are being hacked to pieces with sword and sabre. They are cannon fodder. It is Dutch heroism of the first order. A drama played out by man. This fascinating type of nautical encounter fought out in this picture is discussed elsewhere in this Journal.
The events in the Storm are quite different in character. Man is not the subject, but the object, a plaything on a billowing sea. In this work Backhuyzen employed a dynamic compositional plan which gives the viewer a more immediate sense of involvement. The pronounced diagonal direction of the composition and the imminent danger in which the seamen nearest find themselves, seems to suck the viewer into the painting. The Dutch frigate is the most noticeable diagonal element in the composition. Perpendicular to it is the diagonal line of the ship on the left which is sailing close to the wind towards the frigate, trailing a longboat. This brings the viewer into the composition from the left side as well.

Dating

The two marines complement each other and superbly demonstrate many aspects of Backhuyzen’s talents. Moreover, they are from different periods in Backhuyzen’s career. Nevertheless providing a date for these paintings is no easy matter. The works that Backhuyzen actually dated do not provide a complete overview of his artistic development. Throughout the fifty years that he worked as a painter, he continued to depict similar themes and to maintain his high technical standards. None of the published literature on the artist has provided a convincing chronology of his paintings. The most useful guide is perhaps the different way in which Backhuyzen rendered waves. In his earliest paintings, his waves are mainly rhythmical and sedate. The Battle at Sea fits in well with this style of painting and may therefore date from around 1675. The more experienced he became as an artist, however, the more turbulent Backhuyzen’s waves became. The artist was at the peak of his profession between 1685 and 1695. Ships in a Storm would therefore belong to this monumental period of his oeuvre and may be dated to around 1690. In the Storm, Backhuyzen’s depiction of the waves creates a dramatic and painterly climax.

Final Questions

Foam, fume and fire. The smell of salt, tar, rope and powder is almost tangible. It is as if you are sailing yourself, at the mercy of the elements or witness to a human drama. Rattling gunports and creaking masts, outvoiced by the thunder of the cannons. Backhuyzen wakes all our senses. The pleasure he gives us, the painterly and artistic enjoyment, is what makes his paintings so exciting. But there is more. In the following four essays we explore what art-historical research has managed to uncover.

MS/JC

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