National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast Ludolf Backhuysen (artist)
Dutch, 1631 - 1708
Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast, 1667
oil on canvas
overall: 114.3 x 167.3 cm (45 x 65 7/8 in.) framed: 147.3 x 146.1 x 6.4 cm (58 x 57 1/2 x 2 1/2 in.)
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund
1985.29.1
On View
From the Tour: Dutch Landscapes and Seascapes of the 1600s
Object 2 of 8

The three ships in this large painting are the wide-bellied, seagoing vessels that transported much of Holland’s mercantile cargo. They display the Dutch flag of orange, white, and blue. These symbols of national optimism, however, are in peril of crashing against rocks during a storm. Each ship has a broken mast and, in the lower right foreground, floating wreckage reveals that one vessel has already sunk. Amid the dark gray and steely blue clouds and water, the sun’s golden rays give hope that calmer weather will soon return. The subject may be considered a vanitas, a reminder of the fleeting nature of earthly existence.

Although realistic in appearance, the painting combines imaginary elements that Backhuysen often used in his theatrical compositions. Complex shapes and sharp contrasts of light and shadow heighten the drama as do the massive cliffs and frothy spray.

Backhuysen, German-born, moved to Amsterdam in 1649 to study marine painting. During the last quarter of the seventeenth century he was Holland’s leading seascape artist, with royal and noble patrons throughout Europe.

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