Dutch Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast Backhuysen Ludoph

Dutch Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast by Ludolph Backhuysen, 1667

National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

(image 16001086 px, 343 KB)

This highly dramatic scene of Dutch ships facing seemingly eminent destruction by the raging sea is a prominent example of Backhuysen’s abilities to theatrically portray the forces of nature. Despite the great danger the sailors continue a heroic battle for survival. The ship in the centre seems to be already in control. Her sails are reefed and she steers leeward from the murderous rocks. The ship at the right, however, is still drifting towards the coast with her masts crippled. Uncontrolled she is on a collision course to the ship in the center making the latter’s escape far from certain.

A contemporary observer could read morale from this painting. Man’s pride symbolized here as mighty sea-going ships can still be humbled by the elemental forces of nature or, in the eyes of a Calvinist Dutchman, the will of the almighty God.

This painting was commissioned in 1667 and today is on display in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.