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A Dutch Merchantman Attacked by an English Privateer, off La Rochelle

Oil paintings

Object connections:

Collection Oil paintings, Fine art, The Rise of the Seascape, Maritime Art Greenwich
ExhibitionsTurmoil and Tranquillity
User collections Re·Think Migration by marre986
Francis Drake by hedser@nmm.ac.uk
Gallery locationQH (Floor plans)

Object details:

Object ID BHC0723
Description This painting is an allegorical evocation of the perils of seafaring in the early seventeenth century but, also, seems to record a particular incident. The painting shows two ships approaching each other at the opening of a skirmish. In the centre a Dutch fluyt is shown in starboard-broadside view. She flies the Dutch flag at the stern and mizzen mast. Her mainmast bears a pennant and a flag with a deer rampant. From the foremast she flies a flag with the arms of the Dutch royal house of Orange in the second and third quarterings. She is shown being attacked by an English privateer. The English vessel is approaching from the right, in broad port-bow view, and firing her guns to starboard. She flies a red-striped jack on the bowsprit, a similar flag at the foremast, a St George's cross defaced by a black spot in each quadrant at the main and a green-striped ensign. The Dutch ship endeavours to reach the safety of the harbour and, to this end, figures are shown occupied with the rigging. On board both vessels the crews are occupied with numerous activities, such as securing ropes and hoisting sails. Both ships have opened fire with their bow guns. Privateers were armed vessels which, although they were privately owned, operated under official licence ('letter of marque') to raid enemy shipping for profit. In the distance a French warship, flying the fleur-de-lys, comes out, in bow view, to the Dutchman's aid. On the left a small sailing boat is dragged onto a beach. Further inland, in an imaginary landscape, a stag hunt is depicted. The town in the background is the ancient and strongly defended French port of La Rochelle, on the Biscay coast. The harbour entrance, now as then, lies between the two towers to the right of the French ship: the Tour Saint-Nicolas (which is in fact the larger) on the right or South side and the Tour de la Chaine on the left. The third tower, on the city wall, is the Tour de la Lanterne – a combined lighthouse and prison – easily identified by its elegant, sharp spire. This former prison still contains hundreds of graffiti inscriptions by prisoners that begin from an early date and include those by captured English seamen. Further left, in the distance, is the tower of the church of Saint-Sauveur. The defensive chain across the harbour entrance between the Tour de la Chaine and Tour Saint Nicholas can also be seen. La Rochelle was a Huguenot stronghold and Wieringen, who spent some time at sea, was probably familiar with the fortified port, one of the commercial gateways to France and a potential point of attack. He has effectively evoked this sense of La Rochelle's importance and its attraction for predators on its commerce. In the lower right of the painting three allegorical figures are standing on a rock. The central figure dressed in white and bearing a cross represents Christian Faith. She stands firmly on rocks, in the centre, to indicate that steadfast belief in God will grant safe deliverance for the Dutch ship. To her left stands a modestly dressed captain or ship owner who holds up a votive ship model to her as a token of thanksgiving. Christian Faith extends her right arm to him which implies a judgement in favour of the humble officer. She grants him deliverance from the threatening English privateer captain on the right. The swaggeringly dressed privateer stands with his arms raised in a gesture of anger or defiance. This group of figures reinforces the inscription below. The Dutch inscription in the cartouche, lower right, reads: Met volle last . bootman . niet past op . seerover . fel d’urees goodts staet vast . sulx onverrast vaert d’boot ña rossel ‘Fully laden, the master cares not for the fierce sea rover; standing fast in the fear of God his ship sails in fighting thus, not taken by surprise, into La Rochelle.’ The painting is dated 1616, making it van Wieringen’s earliest known painting. Although the circumstances of both the incident and Wieringen's commission to record it are unknown, the painting's purpose as an 'ex voto' or thank-offering for divine deliverance is abundantly clear. Reinforcing details include the presence of sea monsters in the water, hinting at the dangers of the deep, while the floating barrel represents an offering to the forces of the sea to guarantee a safe passage. Both are common elements in early Netherlandish marine painting. To the left, on the wooded coast, a related narrative of a stag at bay to a hunting party underscores the main action. Not least since the flag of the Dutch ship shows a stag or hert in Dutch. It is possible that Hert is the name of the Dutch vessel. As the stag on land is at bay to angry dogs and numerous well-armed hunters, it seems likely that, at sea, the Hert is equally in mortal danger. Although, van Wieringen has paid particular attention to the surrounding landscape, the composition strongly focuses on the encounter of the two ships. Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen was born in Haarlem around 1575. Like his grandfather and father, who were sea-captains, Cornelis was, also, a seafarer. Karel van Mander wrote in his Schilder-Boek (1604) that van Wieringen, ‘having abandoned seafaring and other trades, has begun drawing and painting ships’. He enjoyed a fine reputation as a marine specialist, garnering praise from numerous contemporary authors and receiving important commissions from Haarlem patrons as well as from the Amsterdam Admiralty. In 1629/30, he provided the design for a large tapestry of 'The Capture of Damietta' for the Haarlem town council, which still hangs in the magistrates’ chamber in Haarlem town hall. Although very few pictures by van Wieringen himself have survived, many drawings and prints after his designs exist. These include not only sea views but also harbours, coastlines, landscapes and cityscapes. Van Wieringen died on 29 December 1633 and was buried in the Grote Kerk in Haarlem. This painting is a rare example of a high-quality, specifically detailed 'ex voto' by a significant early marine artist. It is signed 'CCW' in the cartouche and dated 1616 on the 'Hert' flag of the Dutch ship.
Date made 1616

Artist/Maker Wieringen, Cornelis Claesz van
Credit National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection
Materials oil on canvas
Measurements Frame: 1153 mm x 1938 mm x 115 mm;Overall: 42 kg;Painting: 877 mm x 1664 mm
  • A Dutch Merchantman Attacked by an English Privateer, off La Rochelle (BHC0723)
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