Buffeted by violent winds and raging seas, three Dutch cargo ships struggle desperately to stay clear of a rocky coast. The threat of destruction is real, for the remnants of a shipwreck are ominously present in the foreground: a mast from the doomed ship, its Dutch flag still aloft, and cargo floating in the waves. An even more imminent danger for two of these ships is the threat of collision. One ship, its reefed sails filled with wind, races past two rock outcrops and bears down on another cargo ship that has turned into the wind to try to ride out the storm. Anxious sailors, struggling to bring their vessel under control, gesture wildly as spray from a huge wave crashes against its side. The other vessel’s rear mast has broken, and the crew has cut down the top portion of its mainmast to prevent further damage. Most of its crew is on deck frantically trying to control the disengaged mast and sail. The outcome of the drama is not known, but Backhuysen creates the impression that man will prevail in this battle against the forces of nature: although massive steel-gray clouds loom overhead, clear skies and a golden light in the upper left signal that the storm is about to pass.
Backhuysen painted this dramatic scene in 1667, fairly early in his long and successful career as an artist. Most of his paintings from the 1660s depict identifiable ships massed in the waters offshore, whether outside the port of Amsterdam or near the island of Texel north of the Zuider Zee. Although Backhuysen delighted in activating such scenes with billowing clouds, choppy seas, and strong accents of light and dark, nothing anticipates the concentrated drama of this work. Indeed, it is remarkable that this painting, which is both large in scale and assured in concept and execution, is the first known representation of a tempest in his oeuvre.
Arnold Houbraken states that Backhuysen began his career as an artist by drawing boats. The careful, descriptive style of a number of his early drawings and pen paintings suggests that at the outset he was strongly influenced by the preeminent marine painters of the day, Willem van de Velde the Elder (Dutch, 1611 - 1693) and his son Willem van de Velde the Younger (Dutch, 1633 - 1707). Houbraken nevertheless indicates that Backhuysen’s first teacher was Allart van Everdingen (Dutch, 1621 - 1675), whose seascapes, with their convincing representations of turbulent seas and rugged terrains, indeed include rocks not unlike those in Backhuysen’s painting [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Allart van Everdingen, Ships in a Rough Sea, c. 1645, oil on canvas, Städelsches Kunstinstitut Frankfurt. Photo: Ursula Edelmann. In the end, though, Backhuysen’s fascination with the effects of weather in a seascape undoubtedly stemmed from an inherent interest in the sea. According to Houbraken, “nature” was Backhuysen’s true teacher. He often sailed to the mouth of the sea to observe changes of light and water along the shore, excursions that provided a vivid impression of natural effects for his paintings and drawings.
The vessels depicted by Backhuysen are flutes (fluyten), a type of cargo ship that originated in Hoorn in the late sixteenth century. These ships were at the core of the enormous merchant fleet that was so essential to Dutch commercial prosperity. Merchants used flutes to transport a range of goods on many different maritime routes, including grain and lumber purchased in the Baltic Sea region. Many of the ships in the Baltic fleet came from Hoorn, one of the most important ports on the Zuider Zee, and the seat of one of the chambers of the East India Company. Since the red-and-white striped flag of Hoorn flies from the foremast of the ship to the right, Backhuysen’s scene may relate to a specific event in Hoorn’s history.
Even if a historic episode lies behind its conception, this tempest scene belongs to a Dutch and Flemish pictorial tradition that reaches back to the late sixteenth century. Artists as diverse as Jan Brueghel the Elder (Flemish, 1568 - 1625), Paul Bril (Flemish, 1554 - 1626), Bonaventura Peeters (1614–1652), Cornelis Willaerts (Dutch, active 1622 - 1666), Simon de Vlieger (Dutch, 1600/1601 - 1653), and Jacob Adriaensz Bellevois (Dutch, 1620/1622 - 1676) found a ready market for such works not only because of the inherent drama of their subjects but also because these scenes spoke to a deep-seated fear for all those whose lives depended on the sea. Rocky shores, in particular, had ominous overtones. On a practical level, they were to be feared in the midst of a storm, but they also symbolized inhospitable, foreign lands as opposed to the dunes that predominate the Dutch coast.
Bellevois’s Sea Storm on a Rocky Coast [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Jacob Adriaensz Bellevois, Sea Storm on a Rocky Coast, 1664, oil on canvas, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig, which was executed in 1664, only three years before Backhuysen’s work, offers a particularly interesting compositional and thematic comparison. As ships are cast about in the stormy sea, some survivors of a wreck have made it to shore and are praying to God. The painting is highly anecdotal, yet its underlying concept is fundamental to this genre of images: these survivors have overcome the turbulence of life and have reached the rock of their salvation through the intervention of God, to whom they offer prayers of thanksgiving. Backhuysen, on the other hand, focuses the entire drama on the ships at sea. He simplifies the image and removes the obvious theological and allegorical messages. For these sailors to survive, they must overcome the forces of nature through their own prowess as well as through the good graces of a deity above.
The painting is in a remarkable state of preservation. All of the details are intact, including the masts, sails, and lines on the ships. Particularly fascinating is the manner in which Backhuysen has indicated the spray from the waves by flicking a brush loaded with white paint against the canvas. This technique gives an immediacy to the scene that is not often found in his later works, when his manner of painting became heavier. Although no preliminary drawing for this painting is known, a drawing of a Ship in Distress in a Thunderstorm (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam) has much the same spirit and may have been executed about the same time. There is also an excellent copy of the painting in a Dutch private collection by Hendrick Rietschoof (1687–1746). A native of Hoorn, Rietschoof likely saw Backhuysen’s painting in a private residence where he first copied the work on paper (Teylers Museum, Haarlem) and then transferred the image to canvas, departing from the original only in its smaller size.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014