Ludolf Bakhuizen rarely made his seas calm or sunlit. His is a northern sea with boats scudding before the wind, evoking the sound of straining timbers and slapping rigging.
The vessel speeding towards the distant man-of-war (battleship) is a snaauwschip – a dispatch boat. The man-of-war is at anchor, its sails furled, flying the Dutch colours. The snaauwschip tows a small vessel, perhaps to transfer one of the crew with urgent orders for the man-of-war before it sets sail for one of the many wars fought by the Dutch at the time.
Closer to us the sea becomes more turbulent. A small flat-bottomed boat lying low in the water fights the waves, the sail lowered. Just one face looks out – full of character, the owner’s hand on the tiller – unperturbed and calm in the face of nature’s power.
Ludolf Bakhuizen rarely made his seas calm or sunlit, unless he let a break in the clouds send a strand of pale light across the water. His is a northern sea with boats scudding before the wind, evoking the sound of straining timbers and slapping rigging.
In this painting, the waves in the darker area of the foreground have a rhythmic expression; Bakhuizen had trained as a calligrapher, when his pen would make sweeping curves and smaller, perhaps sharper, embellishments. But in his seas there is always a sense of depth, power and cold – a sense of what it would feel like to fall from one of his fast-moving ships into the wild waters.
The vessel speeding towards the distant man-of-war (battleship) is a snaauwschip (known in England as a snow) – a fast dispatch boat. It flies the blue flag of Leeuwarden, a port on the northern coast of the Netherlands, the coat of arms repeated on the stern. The man-of-war is at anchor, its sails furled, flying the Dutch colours. The snaauwschip tows a small vessel, perhaps to transfer a member of its crew with urgent orders for the man-of-war before it sets sail for one of the many wars fought by the Dutch in the seventeenth century.
The town on the horizon seems to be Dordrecht. The square tower and slender spire of the Grote Kerk (Great Church) stands on the left. Far off towards the right is the hexagonal tower of the Groothoofdspoort. This was the ancient gate through which travellers by water entered – and can still enter – the city that stands at the meeting of three rivers. The spiky sails of a windmill pierce the sky where it stands between the two great buildings.
On the left, in shadow, a wooden pier juts into the sea. Under the red tiles of a wooden shack a man and a woman are perhaps gutting fish ready for sale. Above them, a sail shivers in the wind as it’s lowered by two men on board; another on shore coils a rope. They're watched by a stout man with his coat flying in the breeze and another squatting on a crate, their backs to us. With a flick of his brush, Bakhuizen shows us that the seated man’s head is turned towards this homecoming vessel. A few sweeping strokes of paint turn the other’s attention to the journey of the flying snaauwschip out on the river.
Closer to us the sea becomes more turbulent – perhaps where the currents of two of the rivers meet. A small flat-bottomed boat lies low in the water, slapped and buffeted by the waves. The sail is lowered, not yet furled; something to be wrestled with in the wind. Overhead the weather-torn flag of Dordrecht flies on indomitably. Among all the expressive human backs that Bakhuizen shows us, just one human face looks out – full of character, the owner’s hand on the tiller – unperturbed and calm in the face of nature’s power.
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