The boats crowded together on either side of Jan van de Cappelle’s painting are tough, working craft, made to carry goods and people along the coastline and the many waterways of Holland. Although the vessels are not glamorous in themselves, van de Cappelle has exaggerated the height of the masts and bathed the graceful folds of sails in warm sunlight to give the image its majesty. Its haunting quality comes from the stillness, the soft, muted colours and the luminous reflections.
The artist has almost hidden the vessels themselves in shadow, but they are crowded with incident and activity for the patient eye to find. Like other marine artists of the time, van de Cappelle painted incidents, characters and objects that might be unfamiliar to a modern audience but which would have been understood instantly by a contemporary one. But perhaps his real concern was the painting of atmosphere, with quiet water and the abstract beauty of changing light on masts, ropes and sails.
Because the vessels are almost hidden in shadow, the eye is first drawn out through the narrow passage between them and across the calm estuary stretching far away towards the cobweb-fine towers of a distant town. But these boats are crowded with incident and activity for the patient eye to find. The ferryboat of the picture’s title is probably the wijdschip with one sail draped like an elegant curtain and the other furled into a spiral. Its two blue and white flags suggest that it’s from Texel, a busy port in North Holland. Well-dressed people sit about on deck, waiting for the wind to start their journey. Men on the small barge in front of it unload goods, the bright red breeches of one of them enlivening the picture. To the right, a barge carrying the Dutch ensign is rowed out, perhaps to the ferry. On board are three black-clad officials, possibly lawyers, deep in conversation. Behind them people are crowded together under a canopy.
In front of this barge, close to us, is a pont, a flat-bottomed, inshore boat also often used as a ferry. It is long and heavy with a clumsy, almost homemade looking rudder. Its flag is probably the Hoorn ensign (also a city in North Holland, close to Texel). All the vessels tell something of life in Holland at the time, but this picture was painted around 1665, when Holland was in the middle of a bitter war with England. Hanging over the side and almost dipping into the water is a gold and white flag still on its pole. It’s placed with care and almost spotlit with a bright if mellow light. Behind it, among bundles of hay, is a cannon and a pair of cannon wheels. At least one of the men on board wears a gun belt.
Like other marine artists of the time, van de Cappelle painted incidents, characters and objects that might be unfamiliar to a modern audience but which would have been understood instantly by a contemporary one. But perhaps more than anecdotal detail, the artist’s real concern was the painting of atmosphere, with quiet water and the abstract beauty of changing light on masts, ropes and sails.
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