Reinier Nooms, an Amsterdam painter and graphic artist also known as Reinier Zeeman (which means seaman), specialized in maritime subjects. His career coincided with the heyday of Dutch commercial and maritime power in the 17th century, and Amsterdam’s bustling harbor in the IJ estuary provided Nooms with much of his artistic inspiration.
The billowing clouds, fluttering flags, and slightly choppy waters give life to this engaging view of Amsterdam’s harbor. A warship and several merchant ships are tied up inside the breakwater for maintenance and repairs. A man on a temporary platform works on the hull of the three-master to the left of center, while his colleague tends to a vat of hot tar on a floating dock. Two women have tied their skiff to the dock to do laundry in the harbor’s waters.
This painting celebrates a powerful Amsterdam family and its link to an important warship owned by the city’s Admiralty. The castle depicted on the ship’s tafferel (the painted panel on the stern) identifies it as the Huis te Swieten, which was built in 1653 and captured by the English in 1665. The warship served as the flagship of Michiel de Ruyter, one of Holland’s greatest naval heroes, on three expeditions in the 1650s.
The Huis te Swieten was named after the country estate of burgomaster Cornelis Bicker (1592–1654), a wealthy merchant and a member of the most powerful family in Amsterdam in the 1650s. Cornelis’s brother Jan Bicker (1591–1653) operated a thriving shipbuilding enterprise on a newly reclaimed island off Amsterdam’s shoreline. Bicker’s Island, as it is still known today, was one of three islands created as part of the city’s expansion of 1610. In the mid-1650s Nooms made an etching of the shipyard on Bicker’s Island featuring a small guardhouse at one of the openings in the breakwater that protected the harbor. At the far left of Amsterdam Harbor Scene we see a similar guardhouse, which, based on cartographic evidence, was situated at another opening farther out along the breakwater. The etching, which positively identifies Bicker’s Island, and contemporary maps of Amsterdam confirm that Nooms painted this scene from the northeastern shore of Bicker’s Island, looking across the IJ.
The artist signed Amsterdam Harbor Scene as "R.Zeeman" upon its completion around 1658, embedding his coined name on the flag on the warship’s main mast. Coincidentally, Nooms accompanied De Ruyter on an expedition to the Mediterranean from 1661 to 1663.
Amsterdam Harbor Scene is a beautiful example of Reinier Nooms’s skill in combining first-hand knowledge of maritime life with artistic excellence, enabling him to create highly realistic depictions of not only the ships and the myriad activities enlivening this busy port, but also the changing atmospheric character of the sky and water.
Literature on the career of Reinier Nooms is exceedingly sparse. For a brief discussion of his work, see Laurens J. Bol, Die holländische Marinemalerei des 17. Jahrhunderts (Braunschweig, 1973), 289–296. See also Jeroen Giltaij and Jan Kelch, Praise of Ships and the Sea: The Dutch Marine Painters of the 17th Century (Rotterdam and Berlin, 1997), 277.
The city crest denotes municipal ownership, so the people in the larger sloop are likely dignitaries treated to a harbor tour.
The distinctive line of wooden breakers that delineates the harbor proper, with openings at regular intervals to allow ships to enter and exit, identifies this scene as Amsterdam’s harbor in the IJ estuary. Each opening was barricaded at night by a guard who placed a floating tree trunk (boom) or chain across it; correspondingly, the guard sheds flanking each opening were called boomhuisjes.
Old maps and profile views of Amsterdam clearly depict the breakers in the IJ estuary and the boomhuisjes. See, for example, Justus Danckert’s Profiel van Amsterdam of c. 1685.
The artist Roelant Roghman made a nice drawing of a boomhuisje in 1645. See Stadsarchief Amsterdam (Collectie van Eeghen), image no. 010055000046.
Inside the harbor, oceangoing vessels, including a warship and three merchant ships, are undergoing maintenance and repairs. To the left of center, two men on a temporary platform suspended from a railing are using fibers and pitch to caulk the hull of a large three-master. A workman on the large raft below tends to the vat of hot pitch suspended above a fire. A couple of small boats are tied to the raft: a man in a blue jacket seems to lower a fish trap into the water, while two women lean over the side of their skiff to do laundry in the waters of the IJ. Nooms’s careful depiction of the rigging on these ships epitomizes his expert eye for nautical details. For example, he carefully records the complex system of masts on each ship. Square-rigged sailing vessels generally had three masts (spars) consisting of at least a lower mast and a topmast, but larger ships required a third section, the topgallant mast. In port (or in stormy weather), an upper spar could be struck so that its yard rested on the cap of the mast below it, after which the spar was lashed to the lower section, as is the case with the three-master that is being caulked.
John H. Harland, Seamanship in the Age of Sail (Annapolis, 1984), 20, 114, 117, and 119.
Anchored behind the three-masted merchantman in Amsterdam Harbor Scene, is a fluyt bearing small white-and-red flags is a fluyt. With maximum cargo space and minimal crew requirements, the fluyt was the workhorse of the Dutch Republic’s renowned commercial fleet.
Nooms included this particular fluyt in one other painting, but unfortunately in neither work is the decoration of the stern sufficiently clear to positively identify the ship. The second painting, in a private collection, was exhibited in 2010 in the Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, and was reproduced in Martina Sitt, “Schiffbau im Dienste der Nation,” in Segeln, was das Zeug hält!: Niederländische Gemälde des 17. Jahrhunderts, ed. Martina Sitt and Hubertus Gassner (Munchen, 2010), 123 repro.
Nooms enlivened the blue-gray tonality of the overall scene with a sensitive use of light and restrained use of brighter colors, preserving an overall clarity of form while subtly drawing the eye to the warship that is moored in the sunlit section of the harbor at the right.
The flag on the main mast of the warship bears the artist’s signature (in gold): “R. Zeeman,” the nickname meaning “sailor” with which Nooms signed his paintings.
The phenomenon tends to occur on balmy days in late spring or early summer, when much warmer air hits seawater that is still relatively cold. For a description of zeevlam, see the website of the Dutch Royal Meteorological Institute, http://www.knmi.nl/cms/content/36735/zeevlam, accessed December 9, 2011.
This harbor scene was in all likelihood commissioned by a member of the powerful Amsterdam regent family Bicker. The image of a castle on the warship’s tafferel (or taffrail, the painted panel on the stern) identifies the ship as the Huis te Swieten, an important warship in the fleet of the city’s Admiralty
An engraving of Castle Swieten (or Zwieten) as it appeared in 1606 (but that was only published in the early 18th century) further confirms the ship’s identity. See Abraham Rademaker, Kabinet van Nederlandsche en Kleefsche Outheden: Geteckent en in’t Koper gebragt door A. Rademaker (Amsterdam, 1725), fol. 95.
The Huis te Swieten (sometimes Huys te Zwieten) was an impressive warship with a fascinating history. The Admiralty of the Italian port city of Genoa had commissioned the vessel from the shipyard of the Amsterdam Admiralty. However, following the ship’s launch in 1653, it was not delivered to the Genoese. At that time the Dutch Republic was embroiled in the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–1654), so Amsterdam’s Admiralty requisitioned the state-of-the-art vessel for its own fleet.
The 786-ton ship was armed with four cannon that shot 24-pound balls, 22 18-pounders, 20 8-pounders, and 14 4-pounders; its crew at the time consisted of 106 seamen and 80 marines. The warship had a draught of 15 feet. In battle against the English in 1665, about 300 marines were crammed aboard. In 1653, the Amsterdam Admiralty requisitioned a second ship commissioned by the Genoese; christened Huis te Kruiningen, it was nicknamed “the Small Genoan” in contrast to Huis te Swieten, which was known as “the Great Genoan” (http://koti.mbnet.fi/felipe/Netherland/Netherland_ships_1648-1659/netherland_ships_1648-1659.html, accessed March 9, 2011).
In Van de Velde’s drawing, Castle Swieten on the tafferel is clearly identifiable. The drawing was at Sotheby’s, London, December 10, 1968, lot 59. My gratitude to Gregory Rubenstein, Sotheby’s London, who graciously provided this reference and the 1968 catalog image.
George S. Keyes, Mirror of Empire: Dutch Marine Art of the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, 1990), 172–174. For Van de Velde the Younger’s canvas in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, see http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/12402.html, accessed February 4, 2011.
Under the ownership of the VOC, the ship departed for Ceylon (Sri Lanka) on April 11, 1661. As part of the VOC fleet, the Huis te Swieten provided convoy protection to the company’s large cargo ships during the risky return voyage from Asia, when they were loaded to the brim with precious goods. See http://www.vocsite.nl/schepen/detail.html?id=11996, accessed December 9, 2011.
Frank L. Fox, The Four Days’ Battle of 1666 (Andover, 2009), 113. At the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1664–1666), the VOC lent the Huis te Swieten back to the fleet of the Dutch Republic. In September 1665, at the height of the war, the English navy captured the ship in battle, after which it was incorporated into the English fleet as the House of Swedes. Fox calls Huis te Swieten the best ship captured by the English in the Second Anglo Dutch War. In 1667 the warship came to an ignominious end when the English scuttled it at the mouth of the River Thames to prevent the Dutch fleet from sailing upriver. See also J. J. Colledge, Ships of the Royal Navy: The Complete Record of All Fighting Ships of the Royal Navy, 4th ed., revised and updated by Ben Warlow (Philadelphia and Newberry, 2010), 188. Colledge lists the warship as House de Swyte.
At first glance, the carved figure of a very old man atop the stern
Andrea Doria, despite his long career as a mercenary in the employ of King François I of France and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, always gave precedence to the affairs of his home town. As “Liberator et Pater Patriae,” Doria refused the appointment to become Doge of Genoa, settling instead for the title “Censor for Life.” In this role he firmly ruled Genoa until his death at age 94. See the biography of Andrea Doria, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Andrea-Doria-Genoese-statesman.
Andrea Doria, however, is not the only admiral with a connection to the warship. Once commandeered into the fleet of Amsterdam’s Admiralty, the state-of-the-art Huis te Swieten served as the flagship of one of Holland’s greatest naval heroes, Michiel de Ruyter, when he led an armed convoy to the Mediterranean in 1653–1654. As Lieutenant Admiral of Holland and Westfriesland, De Ruyter captained the Huis te Swieten on several other missions, including an expedition to eradicate piracy along the coast of North Africa in 1661–1662. None other than Reinier Nooms accompanied Admiral de Ruyter on that voyage, and upon his return from the Mediterranean, Nooms painted four large canvases for the Admiralty depicting the port cities of Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli on the Barbary Coast, and Valetta on Malta. It is not certain, but it is very likely that the Admiralty of Amsterdam specifically recruited Nooms to create a visual record of the expedition.
It is highly probable that Amsterdam Harbor Scene was commissioned by Cornelis Bicker or one of his brothers. Throughout the second quarter of the 17th century the Bicker clan occupied the pinnacle of Amsterdam’s political and economic life. The four Bicker brothers—Andries (1586–1652), Jacob (1588–1647), Jan (1591–1653), and Cornelis—dominated Amsterdam’s municipal government to the extent that they, together with their inner circle, were known as the “Bickers’ League.” Building on the groundbreaking international ventures of their father, Gerrit Bicker (1554–1604), the commercial activities of the four brothers spanned the globe.
For biographical information on the Bicker family, see Johan Elias, De vroedschap van Amsterdam, 1578–1795, 2 vols. (Haarlem, 1903), 1:173–175. In 1653, the year the Huis te Swieten was launched, Jan Bicker served as one of Amsterdam’s four burgomasters and Andries Bicker had just finished a term as Raad (commissioner) of the Admiralty. Cornelis Bicker was burgomaster in 1646, 1650, and 1654, and Andries held that post 10 times between 1627 and 1649.
How widely did the Bickers' banner
cast a shadow over the great ocean,
slicing through it with richly laden ships
that hauled the world’s golden harvest onto Holland’s bosom.
“Zoo wyt als Bickers vlagh den grooten Oceaen Beschaduwde, en doorsnee met ryck gelade schepen Die ’s weerelts gouden oegst in Hollants boezem slepen.” See Joost van den Vondel, De werken van Vondel, vol. 5 (1645–1656; reprint Amsterdam, 1931), 842, see http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/vond001dewe05_01/, accessed March 3, 2011.
Each of the four brothers dedicated himself to trade with a distinct part of the world, a division of labor that in all likelihood was intentional. Cornelis Bicker—who purchased the castle and country estate Swieten in 1632—was one of the cofounders of the Dutch West India Company, which focused on trade with Africa and the Americas. Cornelis thrice served as burgomaster of Amsterdam, most importantly in 1650, the year that Prince Willem II of Orange overstepped his prerogatives as stadholder when he tried to enter the city by force. Acting decisively, Cornelis and his brother Andries—a director of the Amsterdam chamber of the Dutch East India Company, a very wealthy trader with Russia, commissioner of the city’s Admiralty, and a 10-time burgomaster—ordered the defenses of Amsterdam to be readied for action. Faced with closed gates and primed cannons on the city walls, Prince Willem was forced to withdraw his troops; Amsterdam’s firm stance under Bicker leadership is considered a significant moment in Dutch republicanism.
Erlend de Groot, ‘A Touch of Exoticism: Foreign Coastal Scenes in Dutch Marine Painting’ in Turmoil and Tranquillity: The sea through the eyes of Dutch and Flemish masters, 1550–1700, Jenny Gaschke, ed. Greenwich, 2008, 33–36.
Cornelis and his country estate in Swieten are not the only connections between Nooms’s painting and the Bicker family. Cornelis’s brother Jan focused on trade with the Levant (the eastern part of the Mediterranean) and operated a thriving shipbuilding enterprise on a new man-made island off Amsterdam’s shoreline that he purchased in 1631, an island known ever since as Bicker’s Island.
Bicker’s Island is one of three islands that was developed in the waters of the IJ estuary as part of the city expansion of 1610.
Reinier Nooms specialized in maritime subjects at the height of Dutch maritime, commercial, and artistic supremacy. Well-traveled and perhaps even a professional sailor, Nooms signed his works with his nickname “R. Zeeman” (sailor), often, as here, on a flag proudly fluttering from the top of a mast. Drawing on his intimate knowledge of ships and maritime life, Nooms created engravings and paintings that are so accurate that the settings, activities, and specific vessels can be identified. With its excellent condition, stunning light effects, and pleasing composition, Amsterdam Harbor Scene embodies the best of Nooms’s astute observations of daily life in this bustling port.
June 30, 2017
center right on the flag: R.Zeeman
Probably commissioned by the Bicker family, Amsterdam. Pieter Locquet [d. 1781]; (his estate sale, Amsterdam, 22-24 September 1783, no. 448); Mi[...]er. Private collection, England; (sale, Bonhams, London, 12 September 2009, no. 82); (Johnny Van Haeften, Ltd., London); purchased 19 January 2011 by NGA.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr., and Daniëlle H.A.C. Lokin. Communication: Visualizing the Human Connection in the Age of Vermeer. Japanese ed. Exh. cat. Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art; Miyagi Museum of Art, Sendai; Bunkamura Museum of Art, Tokyo. Tokyo, 2011: 20, fig. 2.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr., and Daniëlle H.A.C. Lokin. Human Connections in the Age of Vermeer. Exh. cat. Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art; Miyagi Museum of Art, Sendai; Bunkamura Museum of Art, Tokyo. London, 2011: 13, fig. 2.
- Bruyn Kops-Rahusen, Henriette de. "De Thuishaven van de Familie Bicker." Maandblad Amstelodamum 1 (2012): 34-43, 35 fig. 1, 36 fig. 2 (detail), 38 fig. 5 (detail).