Andries van Eertvelt is generally considered the first Flemish marine painter. There are also documented landscapes and a few biblical pieces by his hand, but these do not show up today. At the age of 19, he joined the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke. Until 1633, when the brothers Gillis and Bonaventura Peeters established their studio, Van Eertvelt is decisive for the prestige of southern Dutch seascape painting. His pupils include Willem van Overdyck, Willem van de Meuter and Gaspard van Eyck. The latter frequently copied from his teacher.
Nothing is known to us about Van Eertvelt’s apprenticeship. He is believed to have been educated in the Northern Netherlands, perhaps in Haarlem. Work by his hand after Hendrick Vroom and Jan Porcellis, and the borrowing of motifs from the work of Cornelis van Wieringen, support this assumption.
As early as the mid-sixteenth century, Guicciardini reports a lively art trade in the Flemish port city. Dozens of artists worked there exclusively for export, their materials advanced by the trade. During the seventeenth century, this practice continued unabated. The siege of 1585 and the subsequent blockade of the port of Antwerp will have affected the local interest in sea pieces to the detriment. Thus, we see Van Eertvelt associated with merchants such as Marie de Fourmestraux and Chrisostomo van Immerseel, who traded to Seville and from there forwarded works of art to Nueva España.
On Nov. 28, 1615, the painter married Catharina de Vlieger, and the couple settled on St. John’s Vliet in the city’s historic port. A growing demand for inexpensive “waterverfdoecken,” large paintings on thin linen depicting land and sea battles, arises from trade. Under these circumstances – dictated by the market – the artist develops his stylistic characteristics: decorative pieces without signatures in a powerful invoice, where truthful representation is subordinated to spectacle.
In the 1620s, Van Eertvelt resides on Happaert Street, where Erasmus II Quellinus would also later hold studio. Catherine dies in 1626. Increasing competition puts considerable pressure on prices for decorative pieces. A last large delivery to Van Immerseel takes place on August 8, 1628. Perhaps the artist was able to use the proceeds to pay for his upcoming trip to Genoa.
Anthony van Dyck had already left Genoa as his place of employment for a year when Van Eertvelt settled here in late 1628. The enclave of Flemish artists concentrates around Cornelis de Wael, who acts as cultural attache and provides compatriots with work in his studio. The brothers Cornelis and Lucas de Wael maintained contacts with such important figures as the Spanish king Phillips II and the Duke of Aarschot. Van Eertvelt is often cited in modern literature for painting galleys in the veduti of his host; sketch material by De Wael seems rather to rule out this assumption.
There has been much speculation about the influence of Genoese painting on Van Eertvelt. Like Rubens and Van Dyck, he does not seem to cherish the local school of painting, but his palette leans toward Tintoretto and the Venetian school. The Flemings seem to exert influence in Genoa rather than suffer it. In the case of Van Eertvelt, we find it in the work of Antonio Marini and Alessandro Magnasco. Sopriani also mentions the success of “Andrea Alfelt” whose “grand paintings guarantee high prices.
Back in Antwerp, Van Eertvelt manages to perpetuate his success. In 1632, Van Dyck honored the artist with a portrait, where, seated at an easel, he depicts “naer ‘t leven” a ship in distress, visible through his window (coll. Museum Augsburg). A year later, the consummation of the marriage between Andries van Eertvelt and Elisabeth Boots took place. From an extramarital affair, Susanna April had previously given him two daughters. He spent his last years of life in prosperity. On June 23, 1649, he rented a house on the Oever for the considerable sum of 240 florins a year. Three years later, in early August, Van Eertvelt died at the age of 62. In a hymn to the artist, Cornelis de Bie praises his work as ‘soo crachtich en soo soet / Oft hy van jonghs af aen waer op de Zee ghevoet’.
A description in the inventory of the Antwerp counselor De Rop (c. 1690) suggests that the two paintings have gone through life as each other’s counterparts since the end of the seventeenth century. Besides ‘a tempeest op zee, met Ste Pauwels die inde presentie van veel volck serpenten int vier worpt’, the inventory mentions ‘eene groote zeevaert, originel van Eertvelt ofte Naentiens, representerende de zee calme, met eenen kay daer volck te schepe gaet’ and ‘Item noch een derde groote zeevaert originel vanden selven Eertvelt representerende eene bataille navale’.Dutch defeats at sea during the Eighty Years’ War are hardly depicted. The disastrous expedition led by Pieter van der Does along the Canary Islands and the coast of West Africa, which took place in 1599, was presented to the public as a victorious victory. The repeated losses in 1646-47 along the coast of the Philippines never even made their way into Dutch ship’s logs.
In depicting the ship’s battalion (A), Van Eertvelt seems to hark back to older modellos. Open-gallon galleys were in vogue around 1615. Closer examination of the battle scene rather points to the battle of Puerto de Cavite in 1647, near present-day Cavite City in the Philippines. Perhaps the painter had knowledge of Joseph Fayol’s account, which corresponds in several respects to the actions in the painting.
Dutch ships had carried out unsuccessful attacks on Spanish ships in Philippine waters from March to September 1646. The Spanish were assisted in their defense by Filipino ships. A renewed attempt on June 12, 1647 is again successfully repulsed by the Spanish-Filipino armada. In the process, the Dutch admiral’s ship was severely damaged, as was another ship from the fleet of twelve. Spanish losses were minor. On the two galleys involved in fighting, three Spanish soldiers and seven galley slaves were killed. The Dutch suffered the loss of thirty men on their flagship alone.
In the painting, we meet both sides in the heat of battle. The Spanish-Filipino soldiers’ “Viva la virgen” sounds as they fire musket fire at their opponent from the adjacent ship. Meanwhile, cannonballs punch holes through the hull of the ship. Men engage each other with muskets, howdgens, stick guns and pistols. Two galleys besiege a Dutch galleon, where a lone artillerist offers resistance from the galley. The Dutch – while retaining all their ships – are forced to retreat. The unglorious incident is forgotten when a year later the Peace of Münster is signed.