Celebrating glory of sea and sky

In Dutch seascapes at PEM's new show, the light pours in

'Seascape With Sailors Sheltering From a Rainstorm,' by Bonaventura Peeters the Elder. "Seascape With Sailors Sheltering From a Rainstorm," by Bonaventura Peeters the Elder. (National Maritime Museum)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / June 21, 2009
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SALEM - A curious thing about many Dutch paintings in the early 17th century is that horizon lines kept falling. You can see the change occurring in “The Golden Age of Dutch Seascapes,’’ a terrific new show at the Peabody Essex Museum.

What did the shift entail? Most obviously, it meant skies getting bigger. This is something, believe it or not, to get excited about. Skies are one of the glories of Dutch seascapes (and landscapes, too). You can drift ecstatically through the clouds of a Jan van de Cappelle or a Willem van de Velde the Younger for hours on end before even noticing what’s going on below.

It also meant a greater degree of naturalism. When, at the beginning of the century, painters depicted the sea with a high horizon line, it implied a higher vantage point. The bird’s-eye - or God’s-eye - view caused life below to resolve into distant-looking patterns. Human drama lost its bite, its immediacy. The sea became a kind of decorative carpet, rather than the active and often ferocious protagonist it would become in paintings made a few decades later.

“The Golden Age of Dutch Seascapes’’ comes to Salem from England’s National Maritime Museum, which has the finest collection of Dutch and Flemish seascapes outside Holland. The exhibition could hardly have a more appropriate US venue: Maritime painting, and all other things maritime, are everywhere in evidence at the PEM. Its galleries are filled with objects relating not only to ships and the sea, but all the economic and cultural ramifications of seafaring (and even surfing, thanks to the current Joni Sternbach exhibit) through the centuries.

“No country in the world had as many ships as the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century,’’ writes curator Remmelt Daalder in the catalog.

Holland was involved in wars all through the 17th century. But only a fraction of Holland’s vessels were warships. The majority were involved in commerce, which took the Dutch all over the globe. It’s strange, then, that only a smattering of paintings during the Golden Age depicted what Daalder calls “the simple work horses of the maritime economy, the robust merchant fluyts or the many smaller vessels that sailed the coast and inland waterways.’’

Instead, artists and their clients preferred paintings of naval battles, faraway oceans, and the richly ornamented warships that established Dutch dominance at sea.

In some ways, it’s the reverse of the tendency in other genres of Dutch art, where scenes of domestic serenity far outnumber depictions of warfare. And yet it’s not altogether surprising: Extraordinary concentrations of violence and drama took place on the seas during this era. Many naval battles involved scores, if not hundreds, of craft, and thousands of seamen. It was natural that artists and their clients would want these commemorated.

The most sensational painting in the PEM show is in the final room: a picture called “The ‘Golden Leeuw’ at the Battle of the Texel, 21 August 1673,’’ by Willem van de Velde the Younger - probably the greatest of the Dutch seascape painters (he and his father settled later in England).

It’s a huge canvas - almost 5 feet high and almost 10 feet wide. Beneath an evening sky we see the formidable “Golden Leeuw’’ unleashing cannon fire from both sides in the midst of a frenetic battle. Its sails, punctured by enemy cannon, are picked out by the sun’s beneficent rays which rake the scene from left to right - the same direction as the wind, which unfurls two proudly flapping Dutch flags.

At the center of the picture, the bright white smoke emitted by the cannons contrasts vividly with a dreadful dark plume from an unseen vessel on fire, and the whole scene, from the seamen clinging to wreckage in the right foreground to the distant patch of cerulean blue in the top left corner of sky, is marvelously integrated.

The great art historian, E.H. Gombrich, wrote in an essay on Dutch genre painting: “Reality must be re-created - even re-invented - in the medium of paint if its image on the panel or the canvas is to be recognized as true to life.’’

This goes for seascapes as well as the better known Dutch genre pictures. So it’s important to bear in mind that what looks “naturalistic’’ - almost like an eyewitness account - was inevitably contrived in the studio. Artists like van de Velde the Younger, the great Ludolf Backhuysen, and the pioneer of the genre Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom had not only to solve aesthetic problems, such as composition, color and light, but to meet the demands of allegorical meaning and the often explicit dictates of clients.

Nonetheless, Backhuysen and van de Velde the Younger were famous for accompanying sailors into battle or going out in small craft to study the skies. The degree of lifelikeness in their painting is frequently astounding: See, for instance, the attention Backhuysen gives not just to the various classes of vessels, the rigging, and the sails but also to the wind and its effect on clouds, light and sea in the painting called “The Merchant Shipping Anchorage off Texel Island with Oude Schild in the Distance.’’

You can see the interplay of naturalism and allegory in Bonaventura Peeters the Elder’s “Seascape With Sailors Sheltering From a Rainstorm.’’ The picture’s golden-brown tonality knits the sheltering rocks, the ships, the sea and the cloudy sky together in an enveloping atmosphere in which we instantly believe. The light which breaks through the clouds at left, picking out an expanse of water, creates a convincing illusion of deep perspective.

But note the presence of the rainbow at right: Later painters of the sea, such as Turner and Constable, were fond of rainbows. But they were extremely rare in 17th-century art. When they appeared, they inevitably carried a lot of symbolic weight. Here, the arc’s colors are limited to three: red, blue, and white. Scholars today don’t know whether this was an allusion to the Holy Trinity, or to the Dutch flag, but quite possibly it was intended as both.

Some of the primitive-looking earlier paintings with high horizons and less credible atmospheres, such as “The Wreck of the ‘Amsterdam’ ’’ by an unknown artist, are as much fun as the later masterpieces. “The Wreck’’ has it all: two ships smashing into rocks, another, the “Amsterdam,’’ pitched at an impossible angle in a heaving sea, and a third on fire beneath a filthily dark sky.

Then again, the more placid views, such as van de Cappelle’s “A Calm Sea with a Jetty and Ships,’’ can be equally engrossing. Marvel, in van de Cappelle’s masterpiece, at the reflectiveness of the water and the high, imperious centrality of the white sun burning through clouds. Both these features would come to play a huge role in the marine paintings and watercolors of Turner, more than a century later.

Indeed, it’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of the Dutch seascape tradition not only on painters like Turner, but on early moderns like Edouard Manet. It’s not often realized that fully one third of Manet’s output addressed maritime subjects, and that these wonderful works owed a great deal to painters like Backhuysen. Manet’s maritime masterpiece, “The Battle of the U.S.S. ‘Kearsarge’ and the C.S.S. ‘Alabama,’ ’’ depicted a dramatic naval scuffle, which was visible from the French coast, during the US Civil War.

Manet is usually regarded as a “realist,’’ and his unusual treatment of this subject was undoubtedly journalistic. But what you notice about it is that the picture’s horizon line is once again very high; it’s almost at Empire line levels.

Was this because, as one mean-spirited critic at the time suggested, the bird’s-eye view allowed Manet to avoid technical difficulties and have the combatants “fight in the shelter of the picture frame’’?

Actually, no. By lifting his horizon line, Manet was not striving for God-like detachment. He was aiming for greater immediacy. He wanted to render the scene as French observers would have seen it at the time, staring in amazement (one of these two ships had chased the other right across the Atlantic!) from atop the high cliffs of Cherbourg.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at


At: Peabody Essex Museum through Sept. 7. 978-745-9500.

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