From July 1st until November 25th, the exhibition “Water, Wind, and Waves: Marine Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age” will be on view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, featuring some 45 paintings, drawings, prints, rare books, and ship models drawn largely from the Gallery’s collection of Dutch art. The museum will host a series of gallery talks from September 4th until October 4th.
During the 17th century, the Dutch were a nation of merchants, engineers, sailors, and skaters. Water was central to their economic prosperity and naval prowess, essential as a means of transportation, and popular as a site for recreation year-round. “Water, Wind, and Waves: Marine Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age” will explore the multifaceted relationship the Dutch had with water during their Golden Age. Demonstrating the various roles water played in Dutch daily life, images range from quiet harbor vistas to stormy seascapes, wintry skating scenes to summery water views. In addition to a selection of loans from several private collectors and a public museum, the exhibition will also present a number of works from the Corcoran Collection.
Today, some 400 years after the works in “Water, Wind, and Waves: Marine Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age” were created, water endures as a defining feature of Dutch society. Whether for innovations in the management of rising sea levels or the charming allure of its canals, the country is known for its strong relationship to the North Sea and the world’s oceans, and to its network of rivers, canals, and waterways. This lasting visual identity originated in the 17th century when the Dutch Republic emerged as a great sea power following the founding of the Dutch East India Company in 1602 and West India Company in 1621 and naval successes against the Spanish and English.
Artists like Hendrick Vroom (1566–1640) capitalized on a growing audience for maritime scenes to create some of the earliest Dutch examples, including “A Fleet at Sea” (c. 1614). Drawing on his firsthand knowledge of naval architecture after years spent traveling by sea, Vroom captured a majestic 24-gun Dutch warship traveling through a harbor alongside coastal fishing and cargo boats. Later in the century, naval battles continued to be a popular subject, particularly while the Dutch were engaged in several wars with England in the 1650s and 1660s. In addition to their general maritime scenes, artists such as Willem van de Velde the Younger occasionally created large works commemorating specific battles. Van de Velde’s “The Dutch Fleet Assembling before the Four Days’ Battle of 11-14 June 1966, with the ‘Liefde’ and the ‘Gouden Leeuwen’ in the Foreground” (1670) shows two famed ships of the Amsterdam Admiralty—at left the “Liefde” (Love), a 70-cannon man-of-war ship, and at right the “Gouden Leeuwen” (Golden Lions), identifiable by the two back-to-back lions on its stern.
Much as the admiralties, magistrates, and municipal organizations sought paintings representing their naval successes, investors in the Dutch East and West India Companies were drawn to scenes representing the maritime commerce that brought them their economic success. Works like Abraham de Verwer’s “View of Hoorn” (c. 1650) captured both the beauty and activities of ports and harbors. Set in the Zuiderzee, the large inlet of the North Sea, the painting shows a group of sailors aboard a large sailing ship (fluit) raising cargo brought by a smaller boat (wijdschip). The low vantage point from the water looking back at the city provides a full view of the many masts docked at the busy harbor.
“Water, Wind, and Waves” also considers how water was a source of many favorite pastimes. In works like Rembrandt’s etching “The Bathers” (1651), men are seen finding respite from the heat in an isolated pond on a hot summer’s day. Especially popular during the first half of the century—which experienced some of the severest winters of the so-called Little Ice Age—were scenes of people of all ages and classes skating, playing “kolf,” ice fishing, transporting goods, and traveling with horse-drawn sleighs, as in Hendrick Avercamp’s “Winter Games on the Frozen River Ijssel” (c. 1626) and Adam van Breen’s “Skating on the Frozen Amstel River” (1611).
In addition to their role as sites for leisure activities, inland waterways and canals were a vital—and efficient—means of transportation across the republic. As a result of unparalleled infrastructure, travel between cities took at most a couple of hours. Perhaps not surprisingly, ferryboats became a popular feature of marine subjects, favored by Dutch painters like Salomon van Ruysdael, whose “River Landscape with Ferry” (1649) shows all sorts of passengers (including horses) being carried across the water. Jan van Goyen’s “View of Dordrecht from the Dordtse Kil” (1644) depicts a craft called a “kaag” ferrying passengers who have embarked and disembarked from smaller row boats.
For those eager to find out more about the “Water, Wind and Waves” exhibition, check out this link to a lecture by Alexandra Libby (assistant curator of northern baroque paintings and exhibition curator), where she discusses the essential and multifaceted relationship the Dutch maintained with the water.