CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Turmoil and tranquillity: the sea through the eyes of Dutch and Flemish masters

Exhibition: 20 June 2008 - 11 January 2009

Museum information

The National Maritime Museum holds one of Europe’s finest collections of Dutch and Flemish marine art, spanning the period from 1550 to 1700. To celebrate the quality of its collection, the Museum will stage a major exhibition under the title Turmoil and Tranquillity: the Sea Through the Eyes of Dutch and Flemish Masters, opening in June 2008. The exhibition contains 75 pictures, almost exclusively from the Museum’s own holdings, with selected loans from other international museums and galleries.

The exhibition will cover the development of marine art from the Low Countries, bringing together Dutch and Flemish artists, from its beginnings in the sixteenth-century to its culmination in around 1700. Artists featured in the exhibition include Andries van Eertvelt, Cornelis van Wieringen, Hendrick Vroom, Jan Porcellis, Simon de Vlieger, Jan van de Cappelle, Jacob van Ruisdael, Ludolf Backhuysen and the van de Velde, father and son.

The exhibition, and its accompanying catalogue, have stimulated new academic and technical research. A particular highlight is the conservation of Abraham Storck’s Ships on the River Y, which has been returned to its original form as a picture intended for domestic decoration (most likely as a supra porte). The exhibition invites a wide audience to access this stunning collection, displayed in Inigo Jones’ Queen’s House, the Museum’s designed art venue.

Turmoil and Tranquillity takes a thematic approach to the subject matter.

1. The Rise of the seascape

This is an introduction to the exhibition and the artistic phenomenon of the seascape. It will show the emergence of the seascape as an independent motif and will feature works of art by early Flemish masters including followers of Breughel and Patinir, Cornelis van Wieringen and Andries van Eertvelt. Abundant narratives enliven these early scenes of returning fleets, vessels escaping from monsters of the deep and yachts racing. This section concludes with the first naturalistic or atmospheric depictions of the sea in the art of Hendrick Vroom and Jan Porcellis.

2. Turmoil: the allegory of storm and shipwreck

Here, the exhibition will investigate the potential symbolic and allegorical meanings of seascapes in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. A rich body of nautical metaphor and allegory was widely current in the Netherlands, as it was generally in Europe during this period. The ship of state, the voyage of life, the ship of the church, the ship of fools, the storms of fate, the restless seas of fortune, the storms of war, tempests of passion – such metaphors were ubiquitous. Key pictures shown in this room include the highly dramatic Wreck of the Amsterdam by an anonymous Flemish artist and Abraham Willaert’s Jonah and the Whale.

3. Tranquillity: national waters

This section introduces the principal artists working in the Dutch tradition in the mid- to late-seventeenth century. These artists, which include Simon de Vlieger, Jan van de Cappelle, Ludolf Backhuysen and Jacob van Ruisdael took on the legacy of Jan Porcellis and developed a recognizable image of the Low Countries and its surrounding waters. This image of fresh breezes and tranquil coastal waters was prevalent in the assertion of a Dutch national identity. Depictions of the seas and coasts have, by this stage, shed their purely narrative quality and are, as artistic motifs, self-referential.

4. Foreign shores

During the seventeenth century, the Dutch were a mighty force on the world’s oceans. They sailed in ever larger numbers to the East Indies, America and Africa, setting up settlements and trading posts all over the world. At the same time Dutch marine painting was in its heyday. Were the two phenomena related? Did marine painters sail the oceans themselves to find inspiration abroad? Did ‘exotic’ views become part of their standard repertoire? This section will attempt to answer these questions by turning to the depiction of Scandinavian, Italian and Indian shores. Works of art included in this section include works by Hendrick Minderhout, Simon de Vlieger, Caspar van Wittel and Pieter Mulier the Younger.

5. History at Sea

Artists were regularly asked in the seventeenth century to paint naval encounters. This final section will investigate the overlap of history paintings and seascapes and will show how, through grandiose depictions of battles at sea, Dutch and Flemish painters became extremely successful both in the Netherlands and abroad. In particular, it will introduce the work of the Willem van de Veldes, painters to the court of Charles II in England. Other highlights in this part of the exhibition include Ferdinand Bol’s majestic portrait of the naval hero Admiral de Ruyter, Abraham Storck’s painting of The ‘Royal Prince’ and other vessels at the Four Days Battle, 1-4 June 1666 and Willem van de Velde the Younger’s Battle of the Texel.

Related event

Turmoil and Tranquillity conference, Greenwich (National Maritime Museum)