By the 1870s, the entrepreneur and banker Barthold Suermondt (1818–1887) had amassed one of the most important private collections of Old Master paintings and drawings in Germany. In 1873, however, he was forced to sell his art collection, and offered it to the Royal Museums in Berlin, the predecessor to today’s Staatliche Museen. In December 1874 the inventory ledger of the Kupferstichkabinett records the accession of 418 drawings. Further sheets from Suermondt’s collection made their way to Berlin in 1879 and 1884, until a total of 435 drawings had enriched the collection of the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett. The vast majority of these drawings are the work of 17th-century Netherlandish masters. In this period drawings no longer served merely as preparatory sketches for paintings, but acquired the status of autonomous works of art. Landscapes and maritime motifs form a coherent group, along with religious subjects, genre scenes, and figural and animal studies.
This exhibition displays twenty drawings from Suermondt’s collection which take life near the water as their theme. Approximately half of the Netherlands lies less than one metre above sea level, and around a quarter lies below it. The port cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam nestle in the indented coastline, shaped by the mouths of the Rhine, Meuse, and Scheldt rivers. The advantageous geographical location, an impressive fleet of seafaring ships, and a deliberate toll policy allowed the Dutch to control almost the entire shipping trade to the continent by the beginning of the 17th century. They were rightfully known as ‘the carters of Europe’. The artists of this period expressed their fascination with seafaring in their works, and simultaneously mythologized the theme of seafaring. In Willem van de Velde the Younger’s works trading vessels and warships tower like behemoths over the calm sea. Ludolf Bakhuysen’s fishing boats are dwarfed next to a ship of the line with billowed sails. Willem van de Velde the Elder depicted multi-deck ships with their magnificent transoms in exquisite detail.
Water also played an important economic role in the inland regions of the Netherlands. Rivers and canals, dykes and bridges characterise the landscape to this day. Even views from the distance as seen in the works of Pieter de With and Philips Koninck include sailboats and barges on the waterways. Artists seldom depict the water uninhabited. Anglers, fishermen, and bargemen populate the rivers and canals in the works of Jan van Goyen, Adriaen Verboom, and Jan van de Cappelle. Drawbridges, locks, and weirs in drawings by Anthonie van Borssom, Gerard Ter Borch, and Simon de Vlieger also pay tribute to the Dutch ability to live in harmony with water.
A cabinet exhibition of the Kupferstichkabinett in the Gemäldegalerie.