In 1995 two marine paintings, Dutch Warship Attacking a Spanish Galley and Spanish Galleon Firing Its Cannons, were bequeathed to the National Gallery of Art. Technical examinations determined that the panels originally had formed a single painting that was subsequently cut in half to form two separate works. Dendrochronological analysis revealed that the two horizontally joined oak panel boards from each segment came from the same trees. This technical information, coupled with compositional evidence, such as corresponding cloud and wave patterns on the two segments, demonstrated that the two panels had once formed a continuous larger composition with the Spanish Galleon Firing Its Cannons panel on the left and the Dutch Warship Attacking a Spanish Galley panel on the right. Fortunately, the two panels had remained together throughout their history, and after they were conserved in 2009–2010, they were brought together to reestablish the original appearance of Verbeeck’s work.
This reconstructed painting, now titled A Naval Encounter between Dutch and Spanish Warships, vividly depicts an intense naval engagement, characteristic of Dutch battles against Spain during the long Dutch Revolt. At right a Dutch warship under full sail has already destroyed a small Spanish galley that is sinking in the stormy sea. The Dutch ship is alive with triumphant activity, from the commander and trumpeter standing on the poop deck beneath the red flag to the sailors scurrying up the rigging and the soldiers reloading their muskets. At left a Spanish galleon is firing its portside cannons toward the large Dutch warship while trying to hit another Dutch ship with its starboard cannons. The smaller Dutch vessel, in the left background, has already reduced a Spanish galley to a burning wreck. Verbeeck’s painting, which the artist signed Cornelis VB on the red, white, and blue Dutch flag atop the main mast, does not appear to represent an actual battle scene but seems to be a nautical metaphor celebrating the victory of the Dutch people over their enemy.
In 1995 two paintings of seemingly distinct maritime events, Dutch Warship Attacking a Spanish Galley
I would like to thank Kristin Grubb, a volunteer in the department of northern baroque paintings, who provided invaluable research on the history and character of Verbeeck’s paintings, as well as Larry Goedde, professor of art history at the University of Virginia and a renowned specialist in Dutch marine painting, who carefully examined these works in the summer of 2006.
A method of dating wood by examining the annual growth rings.
Dendrochronological studies by Dr. Peter Klein from Universität Hamburg provide conclusive evidence that Dutch Warship Attacking a Spanish Galley and Spanish Galleon Firing Its Cannons originally had been portions of one larger composition (see letter dated April 14, 1998, in NGA Conservation department files). Each panel is composed of two horizontal boards of identical widths. While the top and bottom boards came from different trees, the pattern of wood grains in each of the boards is identical in the two paintings. Hence, the boards initially were continuous. Dr. Klein determined that the trees used for these panels were cut down in the mid-1610s.
It should be noted that the two segments have been abutted together, not physically “joined.” The cut between the two halves has been covered by a thin strip of wood attached to the frame.
In the slightly smaller panel on the right-hand side, a Dutch warship under full sail proudly flies an outsized red, white, and blue Dutch flag (on which the artist has signed his first name plus the initials of his last name). A solid red flag, signifying the ship’s intent to engage in combat, flies defiantly at its stern. The warship has already successfully attacked a small Spanish galley, which is sinking into the stormy sea. Whereas the Spanish boat is awash in misery, the Dutch ship is alive with triumphant activity, from the commander and trumpeter standing on the poop deck beneath the red flag to the sailors scurrying up the rigging and the soldiers reloading their muskets. As Spanish oars fly overhead from the impact of cannonballs, Dutch sharpshooters poised on the bow of their ship take no mercy as they fire down at their enemies. One Spanish soldier raises his hands in terror while another tries to leap over the ship’s gunwale into the sea. A Catholic penitent wearing an ocher-colored nazareno holds out a small crucifix as a sign of his faith, and a red-robed turbaned figure, perhaps a Moor wearing a djellaba, kneels on a piece of driftwood and pleads for his life.
A nazareno is a robe with a cone-shaped hood; a djellaba is a long, loose-fitting robe with a hood often worn by Arabic-speaking people along the Mediterranean.
The larger segment on the left-hand side features a Spanish galleon with its red royal standard flying from its main mast.
The flag consists of the Burgundian Saltire with the Spanish royal arms of Castile and Leon in the center. This information was kindly provided by Roger Quarm and Barbara Tomalson of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England (email, May 25, 2007, in NGA curatorial files).
The pictorial narrative of the reconstructed painting is vastly different from that gleaned by looking at the individual segments separately. This much enlarged painting reveals a significantly more intense naval engagement, with the Spanish galleon in combat with two Dutch warships, one close to its starboard side and the other to its stern. Even though the outcome of this battle remains uncertain, the secondary vignette in the distant left, where the Dutch ship is clearly victorious over a burning Spanish galley, would have given a Dutch patron assurance of a Dutch victory. The painting is not known to represent an actual event or even specific ships; nevertheless, Verbeeck almost certainly intended it to be a political metaphor for the victory of the Dutch over the Spanish.
Successes at sea against the Spanish were a matter of tremendous pride for the Dutch people. As is evident in a diagram made of Verbeeck’s original composition
Verbeeck must have learned his trade, if not directly then by example, from the most important marine painter of the day, Hendrick Vroom (1566–1640). Vroom lived in Haarlem but received important public commissions from guilds and admiralties throughout the Netherlands.
Vroom began his career in the mid-1590s designing tapestries of marine subjects, including a suite of ten tapestries depicting the English defeat of the Spanish Armada that were commissioned by the admiral of the English fleet. Vroom received major public commissions from guilds and city magistrates, some of which were among the largest and costliest paintings of the early seventeenth century. He painted not only battle scenes but also depictions of the arrival or departure of dignitaries at Dutch seaports, as well as the spectacular return of Dutch ships laden with costly spices from the Far East.
Exactly when Verbeeck painted this marine battle scene is difficult to determine because he rarely dated his compositions. Nevertheless, the structure of the large Dutch warship, with its open gallery at the stern, and the weblike character of the rigging on the Spanish galleon suggest a date in the late 1610s. This dating is consistent with the costumes of the sailors and with the color of the Spanish flag, which was gradually changed from a red to a white field during the reign of King Philip III (1598–1621).
This information was kindly provided by Carmen Zamarrón Moreno, Conservadora, Museo Naval de Madrid (email, May 31, 2007, in NGA curatorial files).
See note 3, this entry.
Verbeeck’s original painting was probably cut down early in its history, long before the two parts were acquired in the 1880s by the renowned journalist and railroad magnate Henry Villard.
It is not known from whom Henry Villard, Dorothea Hammond’s grandfather, acquired these works.
The reconstruction of this work is important not only for the appreciation of Verbeeck’s artistic achievements but also for our understanding of early seventeenth-century images of dramatic naval encounters between the Dutch and their adversaries. These skirmishes and outright battles were fought by valiant seamen maneuvering their formidable ships into combat with canons blazing. Verbeeck, who generally worked for private patrons, probably made this painting for a collector from Hoorn, as the red and yellow striped flag flying from the mizzenmast of the Dutch warship is the flag of that port city.
This information was kindly provided by Rob Kattenburg, a Dutch authority on marine painting in a letter of October 1, 1987.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
on the Dutch flag: Cornelis VB
Henry Villard [1835-1900], New York, by the 1880s; by descent to his granddaughter, Dorothea Villard Hammond [1907-1994], Washington, D.C.; bequest 1995 to NGA.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr., and Michael Swicklik. "Behind the Veil: Restoration of a Dutch Marine Painting Offers a New Look at Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art and History." National Gallery of Art Bulletin, no. 37 (Fall 2007): 2-13, figs. 1, 11, 12.
Each section is executed on an oak panel consisting of two boards joined horizontally. Dendrochronological analysis revealed that the upper boards of both panels came from one tree and that the lower boards of both panels came from a second tree. This information, coupled with the compositional evidence, indicates that the two panels were originally one long painting, which was cut in half to form two paintings. Wood veneers and cradles have been applied to the backs of both panels.
The ground on both panels is a thin, white layer. Thin layers of paint were built up to form the sky and water. The boats were then added by applying thin, dark paint followed by lighter, thicker paint. The finer details, such as the rigging, were added next, followed lastly by the atmospheric effects of smoke and fire.
The panels are in fairly good condition. The supports are stable and in plane, but the paint has suffered from blistering and flaking. In addition, the paint has been somewhat abraded in the rigging, the dark passages in the ships, the clouds, the blue in the sky, and the shadows in the water. The panels were treated between 2008 and 2010 to consolidate the areas of blistering and loss, to remove discolored varnish and overpaint, and to inpaint the losses and abrasion.
 Dendrochronology was performed by Dr. Peter Klein, Universität Hamburg (see letter dated April 14, 1998, in NGA Conservation department files). The analysis also confirmed that the wood is oak and the earliest possible felling date for the trees was 1610.
Related IconClass Terms
- sea seascape
- as symbol of sovereignty
- revolution +Dutch Revolt
- military glory
- naval force
- influence of