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Ludolf Backhuysen

On the Zeeburg at Amsterdam

Ludolf Backhuysen

Signed and dated , lower centre: L. BAKHUS:/ 1705
Inscribed on the cannon: Blauhoeft
Oil on canvas, 16¾ X 20½ ins. (42.5 x 52.3 cm)

VP4823


Provenance

Possibly anonymous sale, Amsterdam, Posthumus, 18 January 1781, lot 4 (200 florins with pendant to Oets)
Jan Pekstok, Amsterdam, his deceased sale, Amsterdam, van der Schley, 17 December 1792, lot 4 (99 florins with pendant)
Daniel Mansveld, Amsterdam, his deceased sale, Amsterdam, van der Schley, 13 August 1806, lot 8 (55 florins)
E. J. de Court van Valkenswaard, Dordrecht
His sale, Dordrecht, van der Blijk, 12 April 1847, lot 2 (685 florins to Netscher)
D. Vis Blockhuysen, Rotterdam
His sale, Paris, Pillet, 1 April 1870, lot 2 (1020 francs)
With Edward Speelman, London, by whom sold on behalf of Save the Children Fund at
Christie’s, London, 8 June 1955, lot 76
With S. Nijstad, Lochem/The Hague, 1955
Sale, Sotheby’s, London, 18 April 2002, lot 76 (Corporate collection, UK, acquired for £600 in 1956)
With Johnny Van Haeften Limited, London, 2002
Private collection, United Kingdom, 2002-2017

Literature

C. Hofstede de Groot, A Catalogue raisonné, … London, 1923, vol. VII, p. 239, no. 106, and possibly also, p. 251, no. 155a

 
 


Essay

On the Zeeburg at Amsterdam is a variation on the theme of the harbour scene, a view over water from land that pairs daily activity in the foreground with views of ships against an expansive sky.  In this painting several groups have gathered at one of the ramparts in Amsterdam’s city wall: a fashionable gentleman and several young women and children at the right and two men engaged in conversation at the left.  The man at the right holds his pipe thoughtfully as one of his female companions feeds a baby and urges a distracted boy to take in the view.  Another young woman with arms crossed leans against the barrel of the canon and looks expectantly at the man.  Has he been interrupted during an impromptu lecture on Amsterdam’s defenses?  The group has settled in, perhaps after a long walk past the buildings of the East India Company and to the easternmost border of the city.  Shoes have been kicked off, bonnets have been stuffed in pockets, and a pair of stockings hangs over the wall.  Despite the orientation of the cannon, emphatically pointing in the direction of the horizon at the left, the group’s attention is turned away from the view and towards the grinning boy who taunts a dog with a bit of food.

Despite the distraction of the group at the right and the nonchalance of the two men at the left, the setting is clearly the most important aspect of this painting.  Backhuysen included a prominent inscription on the carriage of the canon that, together with the unusual wooden structure at the right known as a wachthuis, suggests a specific location.(I)  The canon and wachthuis also appear in his Bulwark on the Ij (Leipzig, Museum der bildenden Künste), painted more than thirty years before in 1673.  Indeed, the compositions of On the Zeeburg at Amsterdam and A Bulwark on the Ij are identical with the exception of the orientation of the canon in the Leipzig painting, which points in the opposite direction. The figures, however, are entirely different and reflect the dramatic shift in the use of Amsterdam’s defensive wall over this thirty-year period.  Soldiers exclusively inhabit the foreground of the 1673 painting—several play a game of cards while one stands on the wall looking intently towards the horizon.  Boats are moored nearby with their sails unfurled, ready if suddenly called into action.  The importance of the city wall in Amsterdam’s defence is palpable in the underlying tension of the Leipzig painting.
 
A drawing in the Amsterdams Historisch Museum of c.1673, almost certainly a study for the Leipzig painting, has helped to identify the location of both scenes.  The distinctive blunt tower that appears in the distance at the far left of each composition has been identified as that of the church in Ransdorp, a village northeast of Amsterdam on the other side of the Ijsselmeer. (ii)  The position of the rampart with respect to the village has led to its identification as the Zeeburg, the easternmost rampart in Amsterdam’s city wall. (iii)  Twenty-six ramparts punctuated the city wall, each given a name and housing a windmill—that on the Zeeburg was known as the “Moolen de Son” (the Sun).  Although the drawing is known as both A Bulwark on the Ij and The Blaauwhoofd at Amsterdam, it is unclear to what the name Blauwhoofd specifically refers. (iv)  None of the ramparts were known by this name nor were bodies of water or areas of land that appear nearby on contemporary maps.  There is little doubt that Backhuysen himself painted the inscription on the carriage of the canon—in addition to painting, he also practised and taught calligraphy and the inscription does not appear to be a later addition.  “Blauwhoofd” may well refer to the large bronze canon itself or, perhaps, to its original location, as this type of portable canon was used primarily on ships. (v)

The subject of the 1673 painting relates directly to the military and political position of the Dutch Republic at that time.  Having spent the past year expelling the French army from Dutch land and staving off the constant threat from the English at sea, the Republic in 1673 was no more peaceful than it was during the long years of the Revolt.  In the Leipzig painting, Backhuysen depicts the Zeeburg in its role as protector of the city.  From that point, no ship approaching Amsterdam from the Ijsselmeer could arrive unseen.  By 1705 the military and political position of the Republic had radically changed.  Willem III’s successful campaigns in Britain and his accession to the English throne brought peace and a certain protection against the aggression of other states.  Gradual changes in the use and significance of parts of the city and of structures such as the Zeeburg were inevitable.  A once crucial point in the defence of the city, thus, became a monument to its past, a sort of patriot’s tourist attraction.  In this sense, On the Zeeburg at Amsterdam is an early example of what would become, in many ways, the great passion of the eighteenth-century.  With this painting, Backhuysen captured the distinctively casual interest of the tourist and, rather than depicting a scene in which the viewer encounters people conducting their daily lives in a given place oblivious to our presence, he includes people who deliberately intend to take in the view as we do.  With this element of self-consciousness, Backhuysen modernised his earlier view. (vi)

Dr. Meredith Hale

BIOGRAPHY

Ludolf Backhuysen was born in Emden on 18 December 1631 to a father who served as a secretary in the law court. He went to Amsterdam in 1649 as a deputy in the business of the successful Emden merchant Guilielmo Bartolotti. In addition to painting, he also worked as a calligrapher and was mentioned as a teacher of writing as late as 1656. Backhuysen studied drawing and painting with Alaert van Everdingen and Hendrick Dubbels and, in 1665, received a commission from the city of Amsterdam to produce a large marine painting as a gift for the French minister Hugues de Lionne (not for Louis XIV as suggested by Houbraken).vii Peter the Great, the King of Prussia, the Elector of Saxony, and the Grand Duke of Tuscany all visited Backhuysen’s studio in their travels through the Netherlands and Pieter the Great even received drawing lessons from him. Backhuysen married four times and died in Amsterdam in November 1708. He was buried in the Westerkerk. Together with Willem van de Velde the Younger, he was considered the greatest marine painter of his day, a reputation that he continued to have throughout the eighteenth-century. In addition to marine paintings and harbour scenes, Backhuysen painted portraits. Among his sitters were the professor Petrus Francius, the poet Johannes Antonides van der Goes, and the painter Willem van Mieris. His selfportrait of 1699 hangs in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. His pupils included Jan Claesz., Hendrick Rietschoof, Michiel Maddersteg, Jan Dubbels, and Pieter Coopse.

 
 


i The wachthuis (waiting house), also known as a schilderhuis (painting house), was enclosed on three sides and revolved. It was used by soldiers in their guard of the city and, presumably, also by painters who needed shelter from the changing weather. Holes often appeared in the back wall for quick surveys of the rear.
ii See B. Broos et al., Ludolf Backhuizen 1631-1708: schryfmeester, teyckenaer, en schilder (Amsterdam, 1985), p. 37, 91.
iii That part of the city wall encompassed the offices, warehouses, and docks of the East India Company and excluded a clearly undesirable body of water that on contemporary maps is labelled “’t Sieke Water” (the sick water).
iv In his discussion of the painting, Broos suggests that the “Blauwhoofd” was another of the ramparts but that this scene could not possibly have been painted from it, as it was clearly done from the easternmost of them, the Zeeburg. See Broos 1985, p. 91.
v Broos 1985, p. 37.
vi Support for this idea comes from the records of an Amsterdam auction of the late eighteenth-century, in which the Leipzig painting was sold together with a view of the Haarlemmermeer (present location unknown), a large body of water west of Amsterdam filled in to create more space for housing in 1895. They were sold as a pair of views, one from the westernmost point of Amsterdam and one from the easternmost. Whether Backhuysen painted these two works as pendants, they were perceived as such by the 1780’s and it is this budding shift in the aesthetic of the city view for which I argue in my comparison of his two depictions of the Zeeburg.  For the details of the auction see De Groot 1923, vol. 7, p. 239.
vii For a discussion of Backhuysen in the context of his contemporaries, see L. J. Bol, Die Holländische Marinemalerei des 17. Jahrhunderts (Braunschweig, 1973), p. 301ff.

Ludolf Backhuysen

Emden 1630 – 1708 Amsterdam

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