Ships on a Stormy Sea

Saturday, April 22nd 2023

by Jan Porcellis

Jan Porcellis (United Provinces, 1583/85-1632)

Ships on a Stormy SeaOil on canvas on wood.

H. 102 cm, W. 158 cm (about 40x62”)
(ancient restorations, a few blemishes)

In an Empire palm-adorned giltwood frame.

Provenance : Collection of Pierre Lapeyre (1820-1889), Château du Claux, Naucelles (France); Val de Loire Collection, by succession.

A major rediscovery of the "greatest maritime painter"

By Prof. Gerlinde de Beer

One and three-masted ships are sailing on a rough sea. In the foreground, a barrel-shaped buoy floats among bubbling waves. Brighter on its left side, darker on its right one, the foaming water is in motion. To the left, a single-masted, dinghy-towing “Damloper” ship flying a large Dutch flag at its stern is heading towards the viewers. Three sailors can clearly be seen on board and two more seem to be seated in the rear. In the background, a three-masted ship manned by a large crew is sailing forward. Behind it, two English three-masted ships follow the same route. The leading one, along which a single-masted ship is sailing, is flying a St George’s flag; that same flag can be seen on the foremast of the ship behind it. A smaller skiff - a “Pink” fishing boat navigating under full sail - can be seen on the right side of the painting. On its board, four fishermen are clearly visible; one of them, posted at the bow, is holding in his left hand a spade that stands out against the clear water. The rain seems to be falling diagonally onto the hilly coast in the background; based on the church tower depicted on the far right side of the painting, it probably is the harbor of Texel.

Born in Ghent, Flanders, around 1583, Porcellis reportedly spent time in Rotterdam in 1605 before leaving for London. He was active in Middelburg (Zeeland) in 1609 before moving to Antwerp from 1615 to 1620, where he became a registered member of the Guild in 1617. Moving back to Ghent in 1620, he left the Southern Netherlands shortly before the end of the Twelve Year’s Truce - either in late 1621 or early 1622 - and returned to Haarlem from 1621 to 1623. He then lived in Rotterdam and Amsterdam from 1624 to 1626, in Voorburg in 1626 and finally in Zoeterwoude-Dorp from 1627 until his death in 1632.

Together with Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom (Haarlem 1562/66-1640), Porcellis was the first painter to specialize in marine paintings. Owing to the Dutch seafaring success, the United East India Company was established by the States General of the Netherlands in 1602 to carry out trade with South America, Africa and Asia. In his 1628 “Description and Praise for the City of Haarlem”, historian Samuel Ampzing lauded Jan Porcellis, whom he called “the greatest painter of ships” or “the greatest sailor in Haarlem”. Prized by art lovers during his lifetime, his paintings continued to be appreciated long after his death. He was admired by his contemporaries as well as painters of the following generation including Ludolf Backhuysen, who considered him as the greatest marine painter ever. Rubens, Rembrandt, Allaert van Everdingen and Jan van Capelle also owned several of his paintings.

A number of clues point to Porcellis’1622-1624 stay in Haarlem as the probable production date for this painting, as he focused on depicting raging seas and lakes in turmoil during this period. After 1621, he started analyzing and depicting changing weather conditions, paying particular attention to threatening clouds and sunny spells. At that time, he studied the influence of shadows and light on the surface of water, adding fine details on his ships as well as on his characters. Although Jan Porcellis favored painting on wood panels, he also painted on canvases while in Haarlem between 1622 and 1624.

Using subtle shades of grey and a harmonious symphony of browns and silvery whites, the master painter brilliantly captured the atmosphere of a wild sea in a stormy weather. The color range of his high waves and whirlpools is contemporary to that of the so-called “monochromatic” landscape and still life paintings made by Pieter Claez, Willem Heda, Jan van Goyen and Salomon von Ruysdael in the 1620s. Of a larger scale than his “Ships in a Gale” (47x71 cm, Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum), this painting gives the impression of a huge maritime expanse extending beyond the edges of its canvas.

This painting, probably one of Porcellis’ largest and most ambitious works, was likely commissioned by a wealthy patron. Previously unpublished, it is a major rediscovery in the body of work of this pioneer of the marine genre and an important addition to our knowledge of Dutch maritime activity in the 17th century.

Our most heartfelt thanks go to Prof. Gerlinde de Beer for her precious help with the writing of this essay. This painting will be included in the monograph on Jan Porcellis she is working on.

translated by Sabine Vincenot
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