This atmospheric painting depicts the city of Hoorn from the south, the view that greeted sailors as they crossed the Zuiderzee toward this important North Holland port, a major center for trade to the Baltic, the West Indies, and the East Indies. A bank of clouds stretches across the late-afternoon sky, with only the water’s ripples and a gliding sailboat to suggest the gentle breezes passing over the broad roadstead. From the viewer’s low and distant vantage point, Hoorn’s distinctive city profile is barely distinguishable, with, from right to left, the towers of the Noorderkerk (the North Church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary), the Grote Kerk (the Great Church, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist), and the Oosterkerk (the East Church, dedicated to Saint Anthony) barely visible above the buildings facing the water. The steepled tower in the center of the painting, behind the stern of the East Indiaman, the large ship flying the Dutch flag, is the Hoofdtoren (Head Tower), a large stone defensive structure that marked the entrance to the harbor. A contemporaneous bird’s-eye-view map of Hoorn by Joan Blaeu shows the harbor filled with the masts of moored ships [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Joan Blaeu, View of Hoorn in Novum ac magnum theatrum vrbium Belgicae regiae, 1649, engraving on paper, National Gallery of Art Library, Washington, DC, J. Paul Getty Fund in Honor of Franklin Murphy.
Abraham de Verwer rendered the distant city with great delicacy, carefully articulating the individual buildings while at the same time blending their forms together with a brownish glaze. With thin black strokes of his brush he deftly silhouetted the dark masts of boats in the harbor against the blue-gray sky. He suggested the water’s expanse by modulating the way light reflects on its surface. Subtle tonal gradations from dark to light gently lead the eye back into the distance, while a remarkable and unusual combination of colors—reddish-ocher underlying an olive glaze—gives a translucent quality to the water in the foreground.
The only activity of note in this serene image occurs on the deck of the large sailing ship—a fluit, recognizable by its high, round sternpost—at the left, where a group of sailors grasp lines from a block and tackle attached to the yard of the square rigging. They, and a group of workmen to their right, appear to be raising or lowering cargo into the ship’s hold, presumably cargo that has been brought, or will be taken, by the smaller boat (wijdschip) moored alongside. Why this transfer of cargo is being made outside of Hoorn’s harbor is uncertain, although it may well have been for economic reasons: ships had to pay a fee when they entered the harbor. The activity on the ships, while seemingly mundane and certainly to be expected in such a setting, is in fact exceptional in Dutch paintings of the period, as very few artists depicted the actual loading and unloading of cargo.
Hoorn gained its importance as a trading center from its fortuitous location at the juncture of a number of roads and waterways in West-Friesland, the area north of Amsterdam. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the West India Company (WIC) both had chambers there, hence, in the first half of the seventeenth century, before the harbor began to silt up, ships sailed to Hoorn from all over the world. Fishing and shipbuilding were particularly important industries, which meant that lumber, shipped in large quantities from Norway, Sweden, and the Baltic countries, was one of the major commodities entering and leaving the port.
Hoorn’s prominence as a port in the early seventeenth century is compellingly depicted in a large panoramic view of the harbor that Hendrick Vroom (1563–1640) painted for the burgomasters’ chamber of the town hall in 1622 [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Hendrick Vroom, View of Hoorn, c. 1622, oil on canvas, Westfries Museum, Hoorn. Although De Verwer must have known Vroom’s View of Hoorn, with its high horizon, bright colors, and astonishing detail, his painting is strikingly different. De Verwer chose a low vantage point, emphasized tonal qualities over distinctive colors, and minimized rather than exaggerated the scale of the buildings. De Verwer’s depiction of Hoorn also differs markedly from his own earlier manner of painting, which was fully within the Vroom tradition. The atmospheric qualities of this work reflects the influence of Simon de Vlieger (Dutch, 1600/1601 - 1653) who, like De Verwer, lived and worked in Amsterdam during the later half of the 1640s. Nevertheless, it also differs from De Vlieger’s paintings in the draftsmanlike delicacy evident in the rendering of the boats and distant cityscape as well as the strict horizontality of the composition. In these respects, the closest prototypes for the painting are to be found in the pen-and-wash drawings of port cities in France and the Netherlands that De Verwer made in the 1630s and 1640s [fig. 3] [fig. 3] Abraham de Verwer, Shipping on a Calm Sea, mid-1640s, pen and brown ink, brush in brown and gray ink on paper, Peck Collection, Boston. Indeed, stylistic comparisons with these drawings largely serve as the basis of attribution for this unsigned painting.
The differences between Vroom’s and De Verwer’s depictions of Hoorn are not just stylistic. The two paintings record a significant change in the city’s distinctive profile, namely in the appearance of the bell tower on the Hoofdtoren. In De Verwer’s painting the Hoofdtoren has a tall, pointed spire, quite different from the old squat, angled roofline visible in Vroom’s depiction of the city. This topographical change provides a framework for the date of De Verwer’s painting, for a seventeenth-century chronicle of Hoorn indicates that this new bell tower was constructed in 1651.
The construction date of the clock tower raises questions about the attribution of this painting to Abraham de Verwer, since the artist died in August 1650, a year before it was completed. This seeming chronological inconsistency, however, does not preclude De Verwer’s authorship of this work. Plans for the new clock tower had been underway for some time (the bell that rang on the hour was cast in 1646 and the one that rang on the half-hour was cast in 1647), and therefore it is probable that the structure itself had also been started prior to 1651. In fact, it seems likely that the new tower, which would have such a transforming effect on Hoorn’s skyline, was the motivating factor for the commission of this painting from De Verwer, an artist who was renowned for his delicate and refined renderings of Dutch ports, each of which is identifiable through the distinctive profiles of its towers and spires against the sky. De Verwer died soon after painting this work, so he would never have been able to build upon its success. The painting remains a unicum in Dutch art. No other marine painting matches its purity and luminosity, which seems to anticipate, in so many ways, comparable views executed centuries later and on different shores by artists such as the American painter Fitz Henry Lane (American, 1804 - 1865) .
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014