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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Ludolf Backhuysen/Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast/1667,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed July 19, 2024).

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Thu Apr 24 00:00:00 EDT 2014 Version
Sun Jan 01 00:00:00 EST 1995 Version

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The three cargo ships in this large painting are the type of wide-bellied, seagoing vessels used to transport much of the commodities that generated the wealth of the Dutch in the seventeenth century. Flying the red, white, and blue flag of the Dutch Republic, these floating symbols of national prosperity are nevertheless in peril of crashing on the rocky shore. Each ship has already lost a mast, and flotsam bobbing in the steely gray water in the foreground reveals that at least one ship has been wrecked. All is not yet lost, as the sun’s golden rays break through the ominous clouds—a signal to the struggling sailors that the storm is about to abate. The subject serves as a reminder that our earthly existence is fleeting. Although realistic in appearance, the painting combines elements that Backhuysen repeated often in his theatrical compositions. The complex shapes, sharp contrasts of light and shadow, ragged rocks, and violent waves all heighten the drama. The palpable tension of the scene belies the fact that this painting is the first known representation of a full-blown tempest in Backhuysen’s oeuvre.

A native of Germany, Backhuysen was trained by his father to be a scribe. In 1649 he moved to Amsterdam, where his beautiful calligraphy landed him a job as a clerk for one of the city’s most prominent merchants. His excellent draftsmanship led him to get trained as a painter, and success followed quickly. Backhuysen had a particular fascination with the effect of weather on the surface of the sea, which he depicted with great skill. He became Holland’s leading seascape artist during the last quarter of the seventeenth century, producing marine paintings for royal and noble patrons throughout Europe.


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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

Arnold Houbraken states that Backhuysen began his career as an artist by drawing boats.[4] 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].[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]

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], 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.[9] 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.[10] There is also an excellent copy of the painting in a Dutch private collection by Hendrick Rietschoof (1687–1746).[11] 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


lower center on rock: LBackh / 1667



Arthur George, 3rd earl of Onslow [1777-1870], Richmond, and Clandon Park, near Guilford, Surrey;[1] his heirs; (his estate sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 22 July 1893, no. 24); (J.W. Vokins).[2] Siméon del Monte, Brussels, by 1928;[3] sold by his heirs at (sale, Sotheby's, London, 24 June 1959, no. 22); purchased by (P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London); (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 19 April 1985, no. 111); purchased by NGA.

Exhibition History

Tentoonstelling van schilderijen door oud-hollandsche en vlaamsche meesters, Koninklijke Kunstzaal Kleykamp, The Hague, 1932, no. 41.
Mirror of Empire: Dutch Marine Art of the Seventeenth Century, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts; The Toledo Museum of Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1990-1991, no. 4.
Time and Transformation in Dutch Seventeenth Century Art, The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie; The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota; The Speed Art Museum, Louisville, 2005-2006, no. 34, repro.

Water, Wind, and Waves: Marine Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2018, unnumbered brochure, fig. 9.

Technical Summary

The painting has been lined with the tacking margins trimmed. No reduction of the picture plane has occurred. A cream-colored ground, which covers the fine-weight, plain-woven support, is visible through the thinly applied paint. Thin, fluid, opaque paint layers are blended wet-into-wet with minimally impasted highlights and finely drawn paint lines in the rigging. The paint condition is excellent, with losses confined to the paint edges and only minor abrasion. Discolored varnish and inpainting were removed when the painting was treated in 1985.


Glück, Gustav. La Collection del Monte. Vienna, 1928: 22, pl. 41.
Goedde, Lawrence Otto. "Convention, Realism, and the Interpretation of Dutch and Flemish Tempest Painting." Simiolus 16 (1986): 142.
Sutton, Peter C. A Guide to Dutch Art in America. Washington and Grand Rapids, 1986: 306.
Goedde, Lawrence Otto. Tempest and Shipwreck in Dutch and Flemish Art: Convention, Rhetoric, and Interpretation. University Park, PA, 1989: 177, 202-204, fig. 161.
Keyes, George S. Mirror of Empire: Dutch Marine Art of the Seventeenth Century. Exh. cat. Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Toledo Museum of Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Cambridge, England, 1990: 88-89, no. 4.
Walsh, John, Jr. "Review: Los Angeles—Dutch Marine Art." The Burlington Magazine 133 (September 1991): 645–646, repro.
Slive, Seymour, and Jakob Rosenberg. Dutch painting 1600-1800. Pelican History of Art. Revised and expanded ed. New Haven, 1995: 223-224, repro.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 15-18, color repro. 17.
Beer, Gerlinde de. Ludolf Backhuysen (1630 - 1708): sein Leben und Werk. Zwolle, 2002: 69, no. 26, pl. 71.
Wilson-Bareau, Juliet, and David C. Degener. Manet and the sea. Exh. cat. Art Institute of Chicago; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Philadelphia, 2003: 9, fig. 8.
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 189, no. 151, color repro.
Kuretsky, Susan Donahue. Time and Tansformation in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art. Exh. cat. Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota; J.B. Speed Art Museum, Louisville. Seattle, 2005: 76, 178-179, no. 34, repro.
Wheelock, Arthur K, Jr. "The Evolution of the Dutch Painting Collection." National Gallery of Art Bulletin no. 50 (Spring 2014): 2-19, repro.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. " Sea change: The acquisition of Backhuysen's Ships in distress off a rocky coast at the National Gallery of Art, Washington." In Collecting for the Public: Works that Made a Difference. Essays for Peter Hecht. Edited by Bart Cornelis, Ger Luijten, Louis van Tilborgh, and Tim Zeedijk. Translated by Michael Hoyle. London, 2016: repro. (detail) 114, 115-116, 117 fig. 42, 118-119.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Clouds, ice, and Bounty: The Lee and Juliet Folger Collection of Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Paintings. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2020: 27, 28, fig. 13.

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rocky coast
sea seascape
meteorological phenomena
storm at sea
artist +Willem van de Velde the Younger + influence of
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