Gerlinde de Beer’s monograph on the great Dutch marine painter Ludolf Bakhuizen is a welcome addition to the strikingly limited scholarship on this artist. The foremost seascape painter in the Dutch Republic after theVan de Veldes’ departure for England in late 1672, Bakhuizen was a celebrated and productive artist right to the end of his life – his last dated painting is from 1705. Since the late nineteenth century, however, there has been scant scholarly attention paid to him. Wilhelm von Bode, for ex ample, writing in 1917, saw Bakhuizen’s works as exemplars of a marked decline in the quality and naturalism of Dutch marine painting, a view largely unchallenged until Laurens Bol’s pioneering re-evaluation of Bakhuizen’s pictures in 1973 (Die Holländische Marinemalerei des 17. Jahrhunderts, Braunschweig, 1973). The exhibitions in Amsterdam and Emden in 1985 remain the only shows devoted solely to him as well as the major modern publications on his work.
De Beer states three goals for her monograph: to trace Bakhuizen’s artistic development, to describe his unmistakably high quality as an artist, and to discuss his importance for the genre of marine painting from his time to ours. In this last regard, the book is not notably successful, but it accomplishes its other goals amply. Beginning with an overview of Bakhuizen’s life and career, De Beer draws heavily on Arnold Houbraken’s biography of Bakhuizen, as well as on a trove of family documents bequeathed to the Rijksprentenkabinett by a descendant of the artist in 1905. She reproduces these documents photographically in an appendix, along with the pages from Houbraken’s biography.
Bakhuizen was born and raised in Emden, and did not move to Amsterdam until he was nineteen (De Beer’s reasons for insisting that this must have been by1649, rather than 1650 as Houbraken states, are not completely convincing). In Amsterdam he initially worked for Guillelmo Bartollotti as a bookkeeper and calligrapher. Despite the absence of direct documentation, De Beer expends some effort to define Bakhuizen’s education in Emden. She suggests Herman Friesenburg, who taught calligraphy, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and navigation, as Bakhuizen’s writing master. She also argues that many features of the artist’s career, including his relationships with poets, his own Latin verses, and his self-portraits as a scholar and gentleman, reflect a sound humanist education. Probably the most striking thing about his education, however, is that he apparently received no formal training in painting. According to Houbraken, Bakhuizen simply started drawing ships from life at age nineteen and gained his knowledge of marine painting by working with practicing artists, most notably Allaert van Everdingen and Hendrick Dubbels. This period of learning must have spanned a few years at least, but De Beer wants to compress it into a few months in 1649-1650 because of two signed paintings dated 1649 and 1650. The whereabouts of neither painting is known and the accuracy of their dates cannot be determined. That the next dated paintings are from 1658 suggests that these earlier dates may not be accurate. It seems particularly unlikely that the winter scene putatively signed by Bakhuizen and dated 1650 is an original invention that Hendrick Dubbels, a much older artist, then copied.
The author has a slight tendency to aggrandize Bakhuizen, but his remarkable paintings, especially from the mid-1660s when the artist hit his stride, do not require special pleading. At his best (and he was at his best for decades), Bakhuizen’s seascapes are remarkable for their richness of color, their complexity of chiaroscuro effects, and their subtlety of light reflections, especially in water and sails. They are also works of vivid energy, often involving vessels in dynamic compositional structures organized on crossing diagonal axes on the surface and in depth. De Beer attempts to describe these compositions and their visual effects. She often succeeds in articulating Bakhuizen’s ability to combine the grand and monumental with naturalistic accuracy of detail, a trait he shares with a number of the greatest land- and seascape artists of this period in Dutch art, including Jacob van Ruisdael and Willem van de Velde the Younger. Less successful are her attempts to link some specific subjects and stylistic variations to particular political, economic, or social developments. While sometimes suggestive, these contextual references often seem arbitrary since they cannot be adduced to explain similar subjects or style changes at other times. De Beer is also not interested in the implications of an important feature of Bakhuizen’s work, his tendency to exaggeration or inaccuracy of detail. Masts that are too long, tafferel (stern board) decorations that are not historically accurate, major warships or East Indiamen that are depicted far too close to shore for vessels of such draft, all are characteristics of Bakhuizen’s work in a genre in which meticulous accuracy in rendering maritime architecture and tactics was and is often the standard of quality. Clearly, Bakhuizen sought powerful expression first, something one does not always find with the Van de Veldes, among others. But this preference probably contributed to the slighting of his work in the twentieth century when Dutch marine painting became increasingly the province of scholars and collectors more interested in historical veracity in marine art.
A feature of Bakhuizen’s career that distinguishes him from the Van de Veldes is the number of portraits in his oeuvre from the 1650s onwards. De Beer provides a survey of Bakhuizen’s sitters, and she notes especially the portraits of a number of poets, including the noted eulogist of Dutch naval prowess, Jan Antonides van der Goes. While De Beer notes some general points of resemblance between his poems and Bakhuizen’s paintings, it would seem that more could be done with this relationship. At the same time, one has to recognize the distance between the classicizing poets of ‘Nil volentibus arduum,’ the literary and artistic society founded by the art theorist Gerard de Lairesse, and the commitment to naturalistic accuracy of a painter like Bakhuizen. While Antonides was a member of ‘Nil,’ Bakhuizen was not, despite, as De Beer notes, his clear inclination towards De Lairesse’s circle and his experimentation with classicizing compositional structures known to him in prints by Claude and after Poussin.
De Beer’s book excels in gathering a great mass of material, including Bakhuizen’s drawings and prints, and ordering it chronologically. She also discusses a number of his most important followers and imitators. This is a valuable service considering the artist’s large oeuvre and the huge number of copies and imitations of his work. The information she provides on copies and variants of a number of major pictures will be of great interest to curators, dealers, and collectors, pending the publication of the catalogue raisonné that the jacket blurb notes she is producing. What is missing in this volume is a more synthesized vision of Bakhuizen’s career and his art. We have no sense of an overview of his preferences in subject matter – how often his paintings depict war ships and yet how rarely he depicts actual battles; how often his images involve ocean-going commerce or shipping in local waters, but how rarely he deals with fishing. His relationships with poets are mentioned but their implications are not considered in depth, just as his fame as a calligrapher is not brought into relation to his artistic stature and his consciousness of his own artistry and fame. The author emphasizes Bakhuizen’s strong tendency to reinvent the compositions and subjects of earlier generations of Dutch and Flemish marine artists. She also notes the number of self-portraits in his work, including six paintings. These images depict Bakhuizen as a gentleman; in one case, his learning in mathematics, geography, and astronomy and his skill as a writing master are emphasized. This all suggests a distinctly self-aware artist, who consciously sought to absorb and rework styles and subjects while retaining his own artistic identity. His failure to standardize the spelling of his family name until well into his career is thus surprising. Surprising, too, is De Beer’s use, without explanation, of the spelling ‘Backhuysen’ when the artist himself tended from the late 1680s to favor the spelling ‘Bakhuizen.’This is the spelling used in the notices of his death and the spelling adopted by the Amsterdam exhibition of 1985.
The production of the book is for the most part lavish and well-organized. The large number of excellent color reproductions is a valuable feature. I do have two quibbles. Many detail photographs are reproduced at the same or nearly the same scale as the whole image, in effect cancelling the point of a detail. All reproductions of Bakhuizen’s pictures have both a figure number and a catalogue number, the latter presumably referring to De Beer’s forthcoming catalogue raisonné. It is sometimes difficult to locate illustrations, since the text often cites pictures by catalogue number, while the illustrations are numbered sequentially by figure number. These are, of course, minor points in a book that makes an overview of the work of a major artist available for the first time.
Lawrence O. Goedde
University of Virginia