Boats in a Storm
Bakhuizen here depicts an emergency. The 'wijdschip', a large sailing vessel, has been sailing into an estuary in order to gain the harbour, whose presence is signalled by the masts to the extreme right. The strong wind has driven it against the line of stakes, or groin as it is called; men on shore are pulling on a rope to steady her stern; other boats are coming to the assistance of the distressed passengers. The church and burst of blue sky to the right suggests that the scene may have an allegorical meaning concerning man's (or perhaps a nation's) struggle towards salvation. Bakhuizen evolved his manner of marine painting from observing the work of the Van de Veldes. Their departure for England in 1672 allowed him to exploit the lucrative Amsterdam market. This painting, dated 1696, belongs to the last and most polished phase of the Golden Age of Dutch painting. Viewers today tend to be disturbed by the artfulness of the scene. We expect instantaneous actions and the turbulence of Nature to be rendered with a raw, direct, bold and sketchy touch - more like Ruisdael's Waterfall (DPG168) or the storm scenes of Turner. We want to ask, with Shakespeare's Brakenbury, 'Had you such leisure in the time of death/ To gaze upon the secrets of the deep?' (Richard III, Act I, scene IV). This is of course irrational: all paintings depict an instant, whether it is an instant of calm or of catastrophe; all paintings are created out of more or less patient artifice. Bakhuizen allowed his original audience the fascination of contemplating something familiar but impossible to take in when it was actually happening. To do this Bakhuizen subjects chaos to the organising power of art. Every form has a clear outline and shape which could almost be rendered in sculpture. The patterns of the sails, clouds and waves are wild, but also contrived, elegant and rhythmical. Where detail is withheld, as in the distant figures, a clear and simplified block of colour takes its place. The surface of the painting is given an even matt polish. The colour is minutely calibrated, with the most astonishing effect achieved through a narrow range of greys. There is no smudging. Even though to some extent we have to take the artist's word (or brush) for it, this type of artifice can only succeed if based upon observation. The scene must seem probable. In this case the quality of the observation is extraordinary - especially in the translucency of the waves and the fine distinction between depths of grey cloud-bank to the top left.