Willem van de Velde was the leading Dutch marine painter of the later seventeenth century. This is one of his smallest paintings – it’s only about the size of a sheet of A4 paper.
In the foreground, two boats known as kagen speed shorewards before a stiff breeze. These were sturdy, flat-bottomed vessels adapted to the shallow waters of the North Sea coast, and they seem to be flying the green and white flag of Groningen in the northern Netherlands. Designed to carry passengers, they may be returning from a rendezvous with the man-of-war immediately behind, which is either setting sail or preparing to anchor. The battleship bears the arms of the Province of Holland – the national arms in the colours used before 1663 – and a Dutch flag flies at the stern.
We see two very different types of vessel – one central to the day-to-day life of the coast and inland waterways, the other essential for the protection of the Dutch merchant fleet which then dominated world trade.
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