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Fishing Boats in an Estuary at Dusk

Oil paintings

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Object ID BHC0806
Description At dusk, a thunderstorm threatens to break in a cloud-filled sky. On the left, a small sprit-rigged vessel, crammed with fishermen, bobs gently in the water. Her sprit-sail is half lowered as she runs before the wind. This vessel flies the Dutch flag and serves as an introduction to the composition. Next to it, three men pull a heavily laden rowing boat through the water towards her. They are huddled against the stiff breeze with the waves high around them. The sails of other boats billow in the strong breeze. The wind, entering the composition from the left, gently beats the sea into compact, nimbly rendered crests. Van Goyen’s seascapes – which comprise a relatively small proportion of his oeuvre – are strikingly consistent in their inclusion of land. In the background, on the right, a townscape is faintly visible. Windmills, rooftops and the masts of other vessels are sketched carefully in thin, spidery lines. The expanse of sea, to the left of the composition, evokes infinite space out to the horizon. The scene is perceived from a low viewpoint which serves to emphasize the impenetrability of the open sky. Also this atmospheric effect is achieved through the broad execution of the work which is painted in thick brushstrokes. Both sea and sky are rendered in near-identical shades of tawny brown, serving to create an overall impression of tonal and colouristic cohesion. The appearance of what may be a dazzling flash of lightning, which streaks into the centre of the work from the left, is consequently all the more dramatic. Like depictions of rainbows and other unusual natural phenomena, portrayals of thunderstorms were notably rare. Given the demand of the contemporary art market for very specialist works, it seems conceivable that in depicting thunderstorms, van Goyen was attempting to define himself as an innovator within the sphere of landscape painting. Considering that intense competition fuelled the Dutch art market, at this time, the importance of artistic innovation is not to be underestimated. This painting was not van Goyen’s only attempt to portray a thunderstorm. Like de Vlieger and Aelbert Cuyp, he immersed himself in this subject during the 1640s, painting several works which attempted to capture the instant when lightning breaks into the dark sky. The present painting shares some affinities with van Goyen’s 'Ships in a Thunderstorm with Lightning', 1643, in the Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden. The stylistic likeness between the two works strongly suggests that they were executed during the same period. Moreover, in the present work, van Goyen’s elegant handling of colour is unmistakably analogous with that of Julius Porcellis in the 1630s and 1640s (BHC0805). During this period, landscape and seascape painting entered their ‘tonal’ phase. Van Goyen was a celebrated and prolific marine artist who developed the trend away from the colourful mannerist styles begun by Jan Porcellis and the Dutch realists. Although much of his work is limited to a palette of greens, greenish browns or browns, as in this example, many of his paintings possess an austere delicacy. An abundance of information about van Goyen’s life reveals that the artist was born in Leiden on 13 January 1596. His father arranged for him to undertake an apprenticeship with the landscape painter, Coenraet Adriaensz van Schilperoot. After studying with a number of other teachers, van Goyen travelled across France in 1615. Before, returning to Leiden, to study under Esaias van de Velde. Later he worked briefly in Haarlem. Notably incurring a fine for painting at the home of Isaack van Ruisdael without being a Guild member. He moved to The Hague in 1632 and, by 1638, had become the head of the city’s Guild of St Luke. Though a relatively successful painter van Goyen died, amid crippling debts of at least 18,000 guilders, in 1656. His poverty being the unhappy result of investment in ‘tulip mania’ during the 1630s.
Date made circa 1643

Artist/Maker Goyen, Jan van
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: 321 mm x 410 mm x 80 mm;Painting: 255 mm x 305 mm
  • Fishing Boats in an Estuary at Dusk (BHC0806)
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