The singular achievement of Ludolf Backhuysen as the Dutch Golden Age’s master of the monumental tempest first received its full due with a monographic exhibition in Emden and Amsterdam, his native and adoptive cities, in 1985. Backhuysen’s scholarly recognition was subsequently crowned with the publication of a handsome monograph by Gerlinde de Beer in 2002, based on the author’s dissertation at the Christian- Albrechts-Universität in Kiel in 1993. The Ostfriesisches Landesmuseum recently marked the 300th anniversary of the artist’s death with another monographic exhibition. Although separated by 25 years, this project explicitly seeks to avoid duplicating that effort. Instead it takes a strikingly specific tack, in addressing the social and professional context of Backhuysen’s career as an artist. This angle provided an opportunity to present rare and less-accessible objects that bring the artist to life as a person. It follows the lead of the objects from the museum’s own collection, which make up about half of the exhibition, the rest lent from three major institutions in Amsterdam.
Modest in size, this exhibition presents 45 works under 34 catalogue numbers. Sixteen paintings and two “pen paintings” join fourteen drawings, one page of calligraphy, and a dozen prints, 11 of them from the celebrated series D’Y Stroom en Zeegezichten. Of the paintings, just two serve to represent the large-scale stormy seascapes on which rest Backhuyzen’s fame. Several others present facets of the artist’s biography, the most intriguing example that of a view of the Mosselsteiger on the Y, which possibly includes a combined Backhuyzen and De Hooghe family portrait; it is here presented together with the pen-and-wash study for it. Social history and political context color many of the other selections as well, including The Y Seen from the Mosselsteiger or the Bothuisjes, as well as a large tableau showing Admiral Michiel de Ruyter assuming command of the combined fleet. The paintings display a wide variety, even including an early pair of Biblical histories. By contrast, the drawings, highlighted by the exquisite Caulking the Hull of a Warship from the Amsterdams Historisch Museum, underline Backhuysen’s achievement through specialization.
The emphasis on context is carried over into the essays, which cover nearly half of the catalogue’s pages, and examine in considerable detail several facets of the role and position of Backhuysen’s works and career. Very helpful is Peter Sigmond’s wide overview of the rise of Dutch marine painting, focusing on the military/historical scene and relevant ideological divisions in the Dutch navy, with an addendum on Backhuysen’s contribution. Annette Kanzenbach’s essay focuses on Backhuysen’s monumental Self-Portrait for the Kunstkamer in the City Hall in Amsterdam. Building on Eymert-Jan Goossens and Bert van de Roemer’s re-introduction of this significant but little-discussed exhibition space to the scholarly literature in 2004, Kanzenbach exhaustively articulates the Self-Portrait’s various academic assertions that applied to the newly-opened, semi-public gallery. This point does not dispel the impression that Backhuysen was also exerting the social status he had achieved with a non-academically oriented specialty, as well as with calligraphy, also presented prominently. There remains room for other contexts in shaping its interpretation, such as other self-portraits.
Comparably extensive is the discussion by Karl Arndt of the artist’s biography by Arnold Houbraken. Arndt astutely notes some of the specific conditions of Houbraken’s project, including the short time he could allot to it, and his campaign of written solicitations of information and related dependence on informants. Houbraken’s account of the artist’s preparations for his own funeral is weakly interpreted as praise for his piety, but the wider reading of the Great Theatre and Houbraken’s life and thought offered by Hendrik Horn reveals Houbraken to be a rationalist, interested in critical thinkers such as Lodewijck Meijer and Balthasar Bekker; he was more likely drawn to this story because of Backhuysen’s cool concern for earthly matters such as good wine for his pallbearers. The author astutely zeroes in on Houbraken’s exposition of a theoretical concern for fixed mental and physical images of transient phenomena, such as Backhuysen’s depictions of the turbulent sea: Houbraken raises this point more famously with respect to Rembrandt’s elusive mastery of emotions. The anecdote about the artist heading out into a storm to observe the waves is well known, and of course problematic, but at the same time not to be dismissed. It does address the question of Backhuysen’s conspicuous achievement in the convincing representation of this transient natural phenomenon. As Arndt notes, Houbraken contrasts it with Gerrit Dou’s depiction of immobile objects (he returns to this criticism of Dou elsewhere in his book, it should be noted).
This exhibition engages the viewer with a variety of objects, and delivers on its promise to plumb the context of Backhuysen’s career, thus appealing to the historically-inclined scholar as well as the layperson. The biographical element takes centre stage, and ties together divergent topics, from his self portraits to Houbraken’s account of his life and work.
David de Witt
Agnes Etherington Art Centre