Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast by Ludolf Backhuysen I

Ludolf Backhuysen I

Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast, 1667, Oil on canvas, 114.3 x 167.3 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1985.29.1, Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

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Commentary by

The seventeenth century saw a new genre of Dutch paintings quickly establish itself. These paintings were made not for church or court, but for ordinary citizens, and this seascape is one example. It shows three Dutch cargo ships in a stormy sea off some inhospitable foreign coast, their distance from home being evident from the shoreline which is quite unlike that of the Low Countries. Many seventeenth-century Dutch mariners lost their lives in the circumstances the painting depicts.

The majority of seventeenth-century Dutch merchants built their fortunes by trading with the East, buying spices and porcelain. Mariners risked their lives at sea, and their employers’ livelihoods were also at risk from the passage to and from China. For them, shipwrecks spelt disaster and fortunes were lost as ships foundered. If this painting originally hung in a Dutch merchant’s house, it would have been a reminder that his worldly wealth was vulnerable.

Seascapes were often displayed over doorways as reminders of the perils associated with passage from one state to another. The painting could have physically hung at a threshold between rooms, but its position may have symbolized the dangers of all transitions—those associated with economic exchanges, and also those of exchanges with the divine.

The book of Job suggests that the nature of both such exchanges is inherently ‘precarious’ (a word etymologically related to ‘prayer’). The ‘ends of the earth’ are known only to God (Job 28:24). In Job, the pursuit of worldly wealth ‘to the farthest bounds’ (28:3) is compared to the search for wisdom, and in both cases the pursuer’s whole existence is at stake. Appropriately, the mariners in this painting, like the miners in Job 28, ‘swing to and fro’ above ‘the deep’ (vv.4, 14).

Merchants invested money in the hope of greater returns. But of course, as the painting shows, things can go awry. If the ship also represents the turbulent voyage of the soul on its way through life, then it is a worthy support for meditation on the whole book of Job, which is about how a rich man’s faith was tested by the loss of his wealth.

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