Described by Hofstede de Groot as ‘a masterpiece’ this painting was formerly in the notable collection of Charles-Auguste, Duc de Morny (1811-1865). The natural son of Hortense de Beauharnais and Charles-Joseph, Comte de Flahault, he was therefore the half-brother of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, later Emperor Napoleon III. Brought up by his grandmother, Madam de Souza, he acquired his love of art from her collection, which included works by Titian, Adriaen van Ostade and Carlo Dolci. His collecting began at an early age, and in 1854, on his appointment by the Emperor as President du Corps Législatif, his collection was housed at his official residence, the Høtel de Lassay. Amongst the most famous of his many masterpieces were Fragonard’s The Swing and Le Chiffre d’amour [ The Souvenir]; Boucher’s Rape of Europa; Watteau’s Rendez-vous de chasse (all London, Wallace Collection); Rembrandt’s Rape of Europa (New York, private collection); and The Gilder [Portrait of Herman Doomer (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art). A smaller picture of the same subject, dated 1692, formerly in the collection of Anthony de Rotschild, is recorded by Hofstede, op. cit. no. 6.
Calm and assured, Christ sits among his anxious disciples in a boat practically engulfed by waves. Though the weather menaces—the soot-colored clouds forecast torrential rains, and the fierce winds tear loose the sail’s rigging—the rays of sunlight at the upper left portend Christ’s command for the waves to subside. With this simple but dramatic composition, Backhuysen illustrates the power of faith.
Backhuysen was one of the leading painters of seascapes in the late 17th century. His earliest biographer reported that he often put to sea when a storm threatened in order to observe the changing weather conditions.
Ludolf Backhuysen was the leading painter of seascapes in Amsterdam during the last quarter of the 17th century. His earliest biographer declared that he was “taught by nature” and reported that he often put to sea when a storm threatened in order observe the changing conditions of sky and water.
MARINE PAINTER PAR EXCELLENCE
Backhuysen is considered one of the most important marine painters of the seventeenth century from ca. 1660, besides being an excellent draftsman and etcher.
Very little is known about Backhuysen’s early years. Born in the German town of Emden in 1631, he moved to Amsterdam 1649. The well-educated Backhuysen started his career as apprentice (bookkeeper and calligrapher) to the famous merchant firm Bartolotti. With his knowledge of geometry, astronomy and navigation, Bartlotti enjoyed great advantage from him. Backhuysen also taught calligraphy to the sons of rich merchants- an art form in which he was particularly proficient. His skill as a calligrapher laid the foundations for a successful career. Houbraken (1660-1719), Backhuysen’s biographer in the early eighteenth century, notes that his efforts were soon rewarded. An entry in the marriage register on 30 august 1657, the date of his first marriage, to Lysbeth Lubbers, cites his occupations as ‘tyckenaer’ (draughtsman). His drawings fetched 10, 20, 30 and ultimately guilders apiece, which sharpened his enthusiasm for the work. It was not long before he bade the firm farewell to concentrate solely on art, in particular the drawing of ships.
As a draughtsman, and later as a painter, Bakhuysen seems to have been largely self-taught. The grisailles (or pen paintings as they are usually called in Dutch) he made in the 1650s show the influences of Willem van de Velde the Elder (1611 – 1693), but we do not know for certain if Backhuysen was ever his pupil.
Impressed with his talent a number of artists pressed him to take up painting in oils. Backhuysen apparently made a habit of visiting painters’ studios regularly, where he learned looking carefully and asking questions. Most of the time thus spent was in the studios of Allaert van Everdingen (1621-1675) and Hendrick Dubbels (1621-1707), though he never stayed neither long enough to suggest he was a regular pupil of theirs. Although Backhuysen’s earliest painting is dated 1658, it was not until February 1663 that he was admitted to the painter’s guild of St Luke.
His reputation as a marine painter must have grown rapidly, for in 1665 the Burgomasters of Amsterdam commissioned him to paint a large view of the harbour of Amsterdam as a gift for Hugues de Lionne, minister of Louis XIV of France. By the standards of his day Backhuysen was very well paid, receiving 1275 florins and a gold ducat for his wife. The fact that he was awarded this important commission proves that he was rated as highly as Willem van de Velde the Younger (1633 –1707), who was still working in Amsterdam at the time. The painting is presently in the Louvre in Paris.
Right from the beginning his paintings sold very well and after the Van de Veldes moved to London in 1672 he became the foremost marine painter in Holland. In all probability the rivalry between the Van de Veldes and Backhuysen did influence their decision to go to London. The dignified background of Backhuysen and the marriage of several standing in his life contributed to increase his fortune and ability to attract a wealthy clientele. The Van de Veldes by contrast came from a different social class and were plagued by intriges, infidelity and so on.
According to Arnold Houbraken, his fame as an artist was widespread, and among his international clientele he numbered the Grand Duke of Tuscany, the king of Prussia, the elector of Saxony and several other German princes. Tsar Peter the Great of Russia also seems to have been a great admirer of his work. Backhuysen’s career as a painter flourished without interruption until his death in 1708.
He was a prolific master and it is not without awe that Houbraken tells us: ‘ If it were possible to see all the works of art in one room, one would be astonished by his zeal’. Some six hundred paintings have come down to us. The figure needs to be revised however, as it is based on a now outdated catalogue of 1918 by Hofstede de Groot.
His subject vary, from sea and rivers capes to showpieces based on historical fact of fantasy often with a staffage of colourfully dressed people on board the ships or in the foreground, and the storms and shipwrecks he was renowned. He painted very few sea battles. Apart from marines he made a number of portraits and the occasional allegory and townscape. Besides oils he left drawings and engravings.
He was an ardent student of nature, and frequently exposed himself on the sea in an open boat in order to study the effects of storms. His compositions, which are numerous, are nearly all variations of one subject, the sea, and in a style peculiarly his own, marked by intense realism or faithful imitation of nature.
Although from a historical viewpoint Backhuysen is less accurate than the Van de Veldes, there is nothing wrong with the way he depicts the ships. It is clear from his paintings that he understood the different types of ships as well, and they lie convincingly in the water. Sails and rigging are rendered faultlessly. One only has to look at the work of lesser marine painters to realise just how difficult it is to depict this subject realistically and convincingly.
Backhuysen’s artistry however, was not confined to technical mastery. Artistically he was on a level with the best, and his greatest works -of which there are quite a few- harmoniously combine an atmospheric quality, a wonderfully luminous colour scheme and a happy composition, and are on a par with the best paintings of Willem van de Velde the Younger.
As in the case with almost every successful painter, the great demand for his paintings inevitably led to the occasional loss of quality, and routine tended to creep in. From the 1680s onwards, especially, Backhuysen produced a number of less inspired though very competent paintings. However, many works remain to fully justify as his reputation as one of the best marine painters Holland had ever known, as can be seen from some of the great museums of the world, such as the Rijksmuseum and the Amsterdam Museum in Amsterdam, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, the National Gallery in London and the Louvre in Paris.
As an artist of superior standing Backhuysen had a considerable influence on his contemporaries and later generations. Some of the Van de Veldes of the 1670s have been mistaken for Backhuysens. He greatly influenced a group of marine painters such as Jan Claesz Rietschoof, Michiel Maddersteg, Jan Theunisz Blanckerhof, Aernout Smit, Wigerius Vitringa.
Although he is not known to have been his pupil Abraham Storck (1644 –1708) was also influenced by Backhuysen. There are certain similarities in their work, which are to marked to be a result of coincidence. Later generations of marine painters, such as J.C. Schotel (1787 – 1838), still turned to Backhuysen for inspiration. The drawings of J.C. Schotel are still often wrongly attributed to Backhuysen. Even the in his time highly praised Nicolaas Baur was strongly influenced by Backhuysen around the year 1800.