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Dutch and Flemish marine paintings have tended to be a niche subject, often subsumed within landscapes, left to specialists, or referenced with a few stars, such as Jan Porcellis, Simon de Vlieger, and Willem van de Velde the Younger. In Seymour Slive’s still-standard survey Dutch Painting 1600–1800 (Yale University Press, 1995), the chapter on landscape is three times longer than that on marine subjects. Such an imbalance contrasts with the large number of prestigious commissioned seascapes, often of ceremonial embarkations or naval battles, that commanded high prices during the seventeenth century. The technicalities of boat building, navigating, and weather are complex and have often been the focus of marine scholarship, an approach that may make the landlubber feel at sea. Ships in military conflict or threatening storms form a category distinct from vessels entering a port or in calm waters; the subcategory of whaling comprises exotic creatures, perilous journeys, and extreme labor. Shipping and ships were crucial to trade and global power, and seafaring was bound up with the identity of the Dutch Republic and Spanish Netherlands. New Bedford, Massachusetts, once center of the American whaling industry, now has one of the major collections of Dutch and Flemish seascapes and whaling artifacts outside the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
This delightful exhibition is cocurated by Dr. Christina Connett Brophy, the Douglas and Cynthia Crocker Endowed Chair for the Chief Curator, and Dr. Roger Mandle, cofounder of Design Art Technology Massachusetts. Although there is no catalog, the labels provide a wealth of information. The recent publication Dutch and Flemish Old Master Paintings in the New Bedford Whaling Museum (2018) by Stuart M. Frank, senior curator emeritus and director emeritus of the Kendall Whaling Museum (Sharon, Massachusetts), gives an overview of the collection and discusses many of the paintings in the exhibition. In 2001 the paintings, drawings, tiles, and other objects from the Kendall Whaling Museum, established in 1956 by Henry P. and Evelyn Kendall on their estate, were assimilated into the New Bedford Whaling Museum, an addition of over 550 items that significantly enriched the collection. A symposium is scheduled for October 18, 2019, when a companion exhibition, more broadly conceived, will open.
The paintings in the show are thoughtfully selected for both highlights in the collection and lesser-known works and survey the industry of whaling, primarily in the Arctic, from 1600 to the mid-nineteenth century. These works are augmented by several maps, tiles, and furnishings. One modest item stresses the didactic function of sea imagery: Around the middle of the eighteenth century, the six-year-old Janse van Ipenduur practiced his calligraphy on a sheet printed with an engraving of whaling ships in the Arctic, and inscribed it in Dutch: “Those who go to sea with ships to trade on the great seas are those who see the works of the Lord.” From his youth, Janse was imbued with seafaring values of commerce and piety.
Of the twenty-four paintings in the show, twenty-one concern whaling, two are ships at sea or in harbor, and one is a beached whale. The earliest painting, Ships and Whales in a Tempest (ca. 1595), is attributed by Professor Lawrence Goedde to the monogrammist PdP, the letters inscribed on a flag. The artist, a follower of Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom, rendered spurting sea foam that mimics the exhaled breathy jet of the whale in the lower right corner, a creature that looks like a toothy catfish, a cartoon character long before Pinocchio encountered one in the Disney film. In the broader literary and religious culture, the scene invites interpretation of turbulent nature as a metaphor for the human condition, with ships tossing to and fro upon billowing surf, one ship appearing to sink, and rays of light piercing storm clouds. Yet whaling pictures were (and are) fascinating as representations of distant seas and terrain in their own right, and whaling as an industry fed their popularity, even as they, like much art of the seventeenth century in the Netherlands, raise the question of how the visual depiction of an event approaches its actual appearance.
Adam Willaerts’s Whale Stranded on the Dutch North Sea Coast is presumed to represent the January 1617 stranding of a sperm whale between Scheveningen and Katwijk and seems a convincing portrayal of spectators of various social strata who gather in groups or inspect the nose, fin, and tail of the whale. Esaias van de Velde’s better-known canvas of the same whale, also in the collection but not here exhibited, presents the scene as a social event; the carcass dominates the area, while elegantly dressed onlookers promenade along the shore and include a man upon a white horse, possibly identifiable as Prince Maurits. Willaerts gives prominence to the panoramic vista of coast and sea, with the whale proportionately much smaller and its shape echoed by the horizon of distant dunes. Even when both artists may have had the opportunity to view the 1617 stranding, they relied upon the most famous engraving of a beached whale, Jacob Matham’s print of 1598 after a drawing by Hendrick Goltzius.
Whaling scenes did not necessarily portray the industry as it existed at the time artists rendered it. Bonaventura Peeters’s painting (before 1652) is roughly contemporaneous with the whale hunting at Jan Mayen island (Norway); it includes a carcass being floated toward shore for processing and a convincing view of the shore. However, Pieter van de Velde’s painting of the same site (ca. 1660) was made at least a decade after the island’s abandonment. Once the Dutch landed there in 1614, they used the island as a base for ships and boiling whale blubber into oil. The base flourished for only a few decades as after the mid-seventeenth century, the bowhead whale population in its vicinity was depleted or migrated elsewhere. Peeters and Van de Velde were well informed of the settlement on the island and its processing sheds. But, like many other artists, they chose to portray whales in full profile or spouting, as if posing in their most characteristic view.
The iconic whale in full profile and spouting is depicted in Ship with a Whale after a Tempest, here attributed to the elusive Catherina Peeters (1615–1676), sister of the highly successful Bonaventura, who with her brother Jan carried on Bonaventura’s Antwerp studio after his death. Per interpreting the inscription the painting is dated 1669, and includes precise rigging details that were introduced only after 1652, the year of Bonaventura’s death.
Although few artists went whaling, Abraham Matthuys was among them, and his expert paintings of ships reflect this experience. He is reputed to have gone on three Arctic voyages in the 1620s. His Ships in a Convoy accurately renders the fluytschip, the typical vessel used for trade and adaptable to whaling if a large beam was added to carry the whaleboats. Matthuys spent the years 1603–19 in Italy, and evidently prospered as a painter in Antwerp until his death in 1649. He had a substantial art collection, which reflected both Antwerp artists and those he encountered in Italy. His most visible major altarpiece is the Death of the Virgin (1633) in the Antwerp Cathedral, which reflects his familiarity with Carlo Saraceni’s second and accepted altarpiece on the same subject for Santa Maria della Scala. Matthuys is the rare marine painter who was also versatile in history subjects.
If not attacked and agitated, the bowhead whale remains underwater more than above the surface, coming up only to breathe. The more typical sightings of whales at sea would have been tails and humps emerging above the water as they swam close to the surface and as whalers pursued them. Paintings by Abram van Salm, Ludolf Backhuysen, and Johannes Becx of fleets among tails indicate fertile hunting areas. Whaling was a treacherous and arduous endeavor, and surely difficult to record on-site by draftsmen. In Moby Dick, Herman Melville pointed out mistakes illustrators made in their pictures of whales, concluding: “The great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. . . . The only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; [and run the] risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him.”
Without setting sail, the visitor to this exhibition may view many aspects of whaling in the show and in the rest of the museum, and appreciate how the many products resulting from this dangerous occupation contributed to daily life: oil, soap, corsets, and small carvings.
Richmond Professor Emerita, Lycoming College
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