Oil paintings, Fine art, Foreign Shores, Maritime Art Greenwich

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A Dutch Whaling Fleet

Oil paintings

Object connections:

Collection Oil paintings, Fine art, Foreign Shores, Maritime Art Greenwich
ExhibitionsTurmoil and Tranquillity
Gallery locationNot on display

Object details:

Object ID BHC0798
Description An evocation of a Dutch seventeenth century whaling expedition. A large fleet of whaling ships is shown in a bay with a rocky coastline on the right. In the central mid-distance a large Dutch ship is anchored in icy waters off a coast, surrounded by similar large vessels. She flies the Dutch flag and is shown in port-broadside view. She is probably acting as escort for the whalers seen behind. Three vessels on the horizon are clearly fluyts and a series of small rowing boats can be seen in the foreground. All are engaged in the pursuit of whales. In the foreground, on the left, a whale has been harpooned and is shown blowing a spout of water. A ship's boat, full of men standing up with harpoons in their hands, approaches the whale. The size of the whale is evident since it is more than twice that of the boat. In the foreground, on the right, another ship's boat trails the harpoon line to the whale on the left. In the distance on the right an arched rock frames the composition and, in front of it, three boats tow a whale. This depiction of a whaling expedition was painted by the little-known artist Jacob Feytsz de Vries and helps to establish the economic importance of whaling to the Dutch during the late seventeenth century. As de Vries’ painting shows, whales were generally harpooned close to the shore and then towed towards it by groups of whalers in small boats. Once on the land, Whales were stripped of their blubber and baleen. Furnaces with large open cauldrons, which de Vries depicts as glistening daubs of orange, were established on the beach. Oil thus extracted from the blubber was filtered and cooled, before being tapped into barrels and rowed back to the anchored ships. Whaling was an enormously lucrative endeavour for the Dutch, who began it in the late sixteenth century. By 1610, they had ventured to the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, then considered part of Greenland. It is presumably in these icy seas that de Vries has located this scene. Spitsbergen was described by a contemporary German writer, who had voyaged there, as acutely rocky and dominated by a bristling, cold light. The physically demanding nature of whaling is evinced by the presence of so many men, many equipped with harpoons, preparing to slay the huge creatures. There were only a few species of whale that the whalers could cope with from their rowing boats, with hand- thrown harpoons. Typically, whaling expeditions hunted either the Greenland whale or the Bow-headed whale, both of which were leaden, unhurried creatures and bulky enough to yield plenty of oil. Their high percentage of body fat also meant that they floated when dead and, therefore, were easy to tow back to the land. After the discovery of Spitsbergen, the English and Dutch returned not only with furs but, also, with oil, bone, and ambergris from a lucrative whaling industry carried out on a large scale. Whales had, throughout the sixteenth century, been considered formidable monsters, their huge size and scale marking them out as soothsayers of tragedy or doom. Early illustrations, both emblematic and artistic, showed whales as gargantuan brutes. They were often considered symbolic of ill-fortune, most obviously, by association with the Old Testament tale of Jonah. The sheer magnitude and financial potency of the whaling industry in the early seventeenth century, however, engendered a reassessment of their status. Instead of connoting fear, danger or an ill-omen in painting, the whale came to signify a precious commodity. On the continent whale oil was used in lamps, as a lubricant, and in soap manufacture. The whalebones went into society ladies' whalebone corsets. From 1625, the English were no longer able to compete effectively against the Dutch who were their main rivals in Spitsbergen. The ships involved in whaling helped to make Holland one of the richest nations of the seventeenth century but this resource was ruthlessly exploited and by the mid-seventeenth century the catches decreased as the favoured whales became rare. Very few known pictures are attributed to this Dutch artist, about whom there is a glaring absence of available documentary evidence. Feytsz de Vries was probably active between 1640 and 1660 and is thought to have worked primarily in Amsterdam. That the work was not recognized as that of Jacob Feytsz de Vries, until the 1950s, is symptomatic of his obscurity as an artist. The painting was previously attributed to Justus de Verwer and there are several near-identical versions of the same picture in existence, ascribed to both ‘Aert van Antum’ and Abraham de Verwer. This painting is signed 'IDV' on floating spar lower right.
Date made circa 1640-1660

Artist/Maker Vries, Jacob Feytsz de
Credit National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Palmer Collection. Acquired with the assistance of H.M. Treasury, the Caird Fund, the Art Fund, the Pilgrim Trust and the Society for Nautical Research Macpherson Fund.
Materials oil on panel
Measurements Frame: 610 mm x 888 mm x 95 mm;Painting: 419 mm x 698 mm
  • A Dutch Whaling Fleet (BHC0798)
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