(b. 1630, Emden, d. 1708, Amsterdam)

Ships Running Aground in a Storm

Oil on canvas, 173,5 x 341 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

While Dutch primacy in merchant shipping offered high rewards, its risks were equally significant. On their long journeys to the Mediterranean, the New World, Africa, and the East, merchant vessels were perennially endangered by warfare, piracy, treacherous shores, and storms. Several painters, most dramatically Ludolf Backhuysen, specialized in ships adrift in tempests.

Backhuysen executed this painting (his largest surviving one) as if he were observing the disaster in the midst of the roiling seas, thus engaging beholders in the unfolding tragedy, encouraging them to empathize with the ships and their crews and to contemplate the powers of God, beyond full comprehension.

But even as such paintings acknowledge the fragility of Dutch seaborne success, their distant shafts of sunlight usually hold out hope for reversals of misfortune. A brighter future may still save Backhuysen's ship at left, its Dutch flag unfurled against lightening skies. Collectors occasionally hung a tempest painting opposite a sunny shipping scene, implying that the power of God and nature, whether terrifying or benevolent, is always magnificent.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.