Ruling the waves

By GREG COOK  |  June 23, 2009

But Dutch sea power grew. Gibraltar marked the first time a Dutch fleet had beaten a substantial enemy on its home turf without help from allies. Van Wieringen's large canvas imagines the battle as an urgent chase, offering a sort of fisheye-lens view of warships swooping by: Spanish on the left, Dutch in hot pursuit on the right. You can pick out each sailor and marine on the decks. Cannons blast. Flags ripple. Sails strain against the wind. Broken masts and defeated sailors sink beneath the waves.

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THE WRECK OF THE AMSTERDAM: This “secular” painting might be an allegory for the conflict between the Protestant Netherlands and Catholic Spain.

Note that Van Wieringen has imagined this scene. Seventeenth-century Dutch paintings are realistic, but they're not documentaries. As the century went on, artists drew more on direct observation, but they continued to fudge or outright make up the looks of battles and coastlines to suit their tastes and their patrons' wishes.

As Spanish influence waned, Dutch art subjects shifted from classical myth, Biblical scenes, and portraits of royalty to observed nature and portrayals of businessmen. The Dutch and their southern cousins the Flemish pioneered new specialties in painting: the still life and the seascape. These reflected a change from Spanish Catholic patrons to a Dutch market of government and business commissions plus private acquisitions by a burgeoning Protestant upper middle class getting fat on maritime trade.

Bonaventura Peeters the Elder's 1640s Seascape with Sailors Sheltering from a Rainstorm shows a rainbow gleaming before black clouds. The rainbow had always represented God's covenant with Noah after the Flood. This rainbow features the Dutch red, white, and blue; perhaps it symbolizes civic strength.

Such results are frequently described as the development of increasingly secular art in the Protestant Netherlands. But artists of the time may have seen their landscape paintings as depictions of God's creation and read into them symbols obscure to us now. A deliciously gaudy unattributed painting from the 1630s of The Wreck of the Amsterdam shows several ships wrecked or in the process of smashing against a rocky coast. A vessel by that name did wreck, but this scene could be interpreted as an allegory of the Protestant republic versus Catholic Spain symbolized by the Madonna on the stern of the broken ship at left and the coat of arms of the city of Amsterdam on the stern of the ship in trouble at right.

A respite from all the storm– and war–tossed waters is Jan van de Cappelle's exquisitely delicate 1651 Dutch Shipping in a Calm Sea. Men haul in nets and slack-sailed boats float on glassy still water that reflects silvery clouds billowing above. At the time, Dutch artists were beginning to depict local waters — now their independent republic's own waters. Other paintings imagine Dutch ships on foreign shores: loading timber in a Scandinavian fjord, parked off Italy, whaling in the Arctic, anchored in the East Indies as their merchants trade goods.

The Dutch made peace with the Spanish, but commercial competition with the British led to new fighting. Abraham Storck's circa 1670 painting The Royal Prince and Other Vessels at the Four Days Battle, 1-4 June 1666 shows Dutch and English ships clashing in buffeting winds and curling cannon smoke. The intense action, picked out in awe-inspiring detail, is amplified by the foreground drama of the sailors aboard a sinking, demasted ship. Three Anglo-Dutch Wars in the later 17th century sapped Dutch power and treasuries.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Painting, Visual Arts, Peabody Essex Museum,  More more >
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