Ludolf Backhuysen

Emden 1630 – 1708 Amsterdam

Shipping in heavy Seas

Signed, on the flag: Ludolph.Backh…
Oil on canvas, 17½ x 23 ins. (44.5 x 58.5 cm)
Framed: 23¾ x 29½ ins. (60.5 x 75 cm)



Possibly sale, London, 27 May 1897, lot 46 (sale mentioned by Hofstede de Groot)
Possibly collection Louis Lebeuf de Montgermont (1841?-1918)
Possibly his posthumous sale, Paris, 16-19 June 1919, lot 180
M. Grandchamp / 76 av. Paul Doumer (label on the back of the frame)
By inheritance, private collection, France, until 2021
Anon. sale, Briscadieu Bordeaux, Bordeaux, 27 March 2021, lot 164.


Possibly C. Hofstede de Groot, Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century, London, 1923, vol. 7, p. 304, cat. 413.


Described by the artists’ biographer Arnold Houbraken as “diligent, quiet and sober, commendable by nature and modest with all,” the German-born Dutch painter Ludolf Backhuysen (or Bakhuizen) began his career as a draftsman in the town of Emden in the east of the Province of Friesland.[i]  In 1649, at the age of eighteen, he moved to Amsterdam, where he was active as a clerk for the trading firm of the wealthy merchant Guillielmo Bartolotti van den Heuven, also from Eemden. He was recorded as a calligrapher and from 1650 worked as a draftsman, producing grisailles, and pen paintings possibly derived from Willem van de Velde the Elder’s (1610/11-1693) pen drawings of the 1650s. Backhuysen was also a printmaker.

Backhuysen’s earliest dated oil painting is from 1658; however, he did not become a member of the Amsterdam Guild of Saint Luke until 1663. According to Houbraken, he was initially self-taught, but later trained as a painter under Allaert van Everdingen (1621-1675) and Hendrick Dubbels (1621-1707), though no records of any apprenticeship survive.[ii]  In his own time, he counted several marine painters among his pupils and exerted an influence on Abraham Storck (1644-1708). Backhuysen died following a protracted illness and was buried in Amsterdam’s Westerkerk on 17 November 1708.  His appreciation of the ‘sublime’ in nature resonated later in the work of the English Romantic artist J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851).[iii] A stormy seascape by Backhuysen “the master of thunder-clouds” was a must in any eighteenth-century collection of Dutch paintings.

While his oeuvre includes portraits of members of his family – for instance of his third wife Alida Greffet, who ran a lucrative silk business[iv] – and of patrons, he became best known for his marine paintings, which were decisively influenced by his teachers as well as Willem van de Velde the Younger (1633-1707).  Moreover, his earliest works exhibits a silvery grey tonality and simple compositions reflecting the impact of Simon de Vlieger (1601-1653). A chronicler of daily life along the Dutch shores and of major maritime events, Backhuysen developed into a leading master of dramatic seascapes, scenes of tempests, and stormy skies. He first recorded these in quick sketches, which he later used for paintings back in his studio.

His star rose from 1658 onwards and he garnered greater recognition as a marine painter while also providing backgrounds with ships in works by Bartholomeus van der Helst (1613-1670), including the 1668 Portrait of Vice Admiral Johan de Liefde (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Two years later, the mayor of Amsterdam commissioned a View of Amsterdam and the IJ River (Louvre, Paris) from him for the hefty sum of 1275 florins, which was presented as a diplomatic gift to Hugues de Lionne, minister of foreign affairs under Louis XIV. After 1672, when Willem van de Velde the Elder and his son Willem the Younger emigrated to England, Backhuysen arguably became the Netherlands’ premier painter of marines. He received commissions, and visits, from the most important patrons of the time, including the grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de Medici, the king of Prussia, Frederick I, the elector of Saxony, and Tsar Peter the Great of Russia. His social standing is also clear from his friends, well-regarded artists and poets, and his fourth wife likewise came from a prominent family.

The painting under discussion features a variety of vessels riding the choppy, foreboding sea, overcast in the foreground by the stormy sky. At the left, a small fishing boat with two bulging sails transports five sailors. At the centre of the composition is a small vessel crowded with nine crew members being rowed strenuously towards a fluitschip (flute), flying a large ensign of the United Provinces, which is spotlighted by the sunlight piercing through the clouds. Destined for mercantile trade, these crafts were optimised for low-cost transport, thereby contributing to the flowering of Dutch maritime commerce during the seventeenth century. Two other fishing boats at the right and a man-of-war in the background at the left bookend the composition. Perhaps, these vessels symbolically signal the pre-eminence of the Dutch fleet in Europe, which around 1664 counted some 6,000 crafts. Such an idea finds some confirmation in a circa 1701 etching by the then 71-year-old Ludolf Backhuysen, Allegory of the Amsterdam Sea Trade with a View of the Ij.

Our marine exemplifies Backhuysen’s art in the importance given to the dramatic, mutable sky occupying three quarters of the surface and the precision lavished on individual details, including the very realistic rigging. Houbraken explained the measure the artist took to ensure the naturalism of his compositions, including going out in a launch into stormy waters to observe them.[v] Marked by contrast and dramatic alternation of light and dark and the use bright colors our marine is representative of the artist’s works from the 1690s, a highly productive period epitomised by the signed and 1697 dated Stormy Sea with Ships (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). The signature applied to the flag in our painting, and found on other works (such as IJ in Amsterdam with Fluitschip, a Dutch Man’o’war, and other Vessels signed Lud:Bac on the flag),[vi] bespeaks the pride Backhuysen took in his art. His virtuoso rendering of breaking waves and frothy spray was summed up by the poet Ludolf Smids (1649-1720) as follows “Forsooth, tis water not paint: I hear it foaming.”[vii]


The son of Gerhard Backhusen and his wife Margarete Janssen, Ludolf Backhuysen was born in the German town of Emden on 28 December 1630.  He trained as a clerk in his native town before moving to Amsterdam in 1649, where he was first employed by the Bartolotti trading house.  Soon after moving to Amsterdam, he began to pursue his artistic interests, first as a calligrapher and then as a draughtsman of pen drawings, primarily of marine subjects on prepared canvas, panel and parchment.  These works were probably inspired by the pen paintings of Willem van de Velde the Elder.  According to the artists’ biographer Arnold Houbraken, Backhuysen learnt to paint in oils from Allart van Everdingen and Hendrick Dubbels, but there is no documentary proof of this.  His early monochromatic works also show the influence of Simon de Vlieger.  Whatever the case, by the early 1660s Backhuysen had become an established painter.  In 1663, he enrolled in the Amsterdam Guild of St. Luke and quickly made a name for himself.  On 14 June 1665 the burgomaster of Amsterdam commissioned him to paint a View of Amsterdam and the Ij, intended as a diplomatic gift for Hugues des Lionne, Louis XIV’s Foreign Minister.  For this painting, now in the Louvre, Paris, the artist received 1300 guilders - a considerable sum in those days - plus a gold ducat for his wife.  Shortly after this he must have set up his own workshop.  His several pupils included Pieter Coopse, Abraham Storck, Gerrit Pompe and Jan Claesz. Rietschoof. 

Backhuysen married four times.  His first wife was Lysbet Lubbers whom he married on 30 August 1657: on that occasion he is described as a “teckenaer” (draughtsman) in the marriage register.  His second marriage to Catarina Bevel of Haarlem took place on 29 April 1660.  On 26 June 1664, at which time he is referred to as a painter, he was married for the third time to Alida Greffet: her marriage portion, a silk business, contributed substantially to the family’s economic stability.  A daughter, Maria, was born to this union.  On 10 May 1680 Anna de Hooghe, a prosperous merchant’s daughter, became Backhuysen’s fourth wife, Alida Greffet having died in 1678. Joannis, baptised on 3 February 1683, was the only one of three sons born of this union to survive.  By the spring of 1685 Backhuysen was living at a fashionable address on the Herengracht.  He remained active to a ripe old age and was still painting in the year before his death.  He died in Amsterdam on 17 November 1708 and was buried in the Westerkerk five days later[viii]

[i] H.J. Hoorn and R. van Leuwen, Houbraken Translated. Arnold Houbraken’s Great Theatre of the Netherlandish Painters and Paintresses, The Hague, 2021, RKD Studies, vol. 2, pp. 238.
[ii] Ibid., p. 237.
[iii] Writing on Turner’s Dutch Boats in a Gale (National Gallery, London), diarist Joseph Farington recorded that “Some noble amateurs said it was taken from a picture of a Backhuysen.” A. Wilton, Turner in his Time, London, 1987, pp. 58-59.
[iv] The ca. 1665-1670 Portrait of Alida Greffet is in the Osfriesisches Landesmuseum, Emden. P. Sigmund, A. Kanzenbach, S. Tasch, Gemalte Geschichte: Spurensicherung und Interpretation eines Haupwerks von Ludolf Backhuysen im Ostfriesischen Landesmuseum Emden ‘Die Flotte der Republik sticht unter dem Oberbefehl von Michiel Adriaensz. de Ruyter bei Texel in See, 19. August 1665’,” Emden/Berlin, 2015, p. 14, fig. 8, in color.
[v] Houbraken, see note 1 above, vol. 2, p. 238.
[vi] G. de Beer, E.-J. Goossens, B. van de Roemer, Backhuysen aan het roer! / Backuysen at the Helm!, cat. Koninklijk Paleis Amsterdam, 1 July – 12 Sept. 2004, Alkmaar, 2004, pp. 54-55, cat. 10.
[vii] L. Smids, Poësye, Amsterdam, 1694, p. 162.
[viii] Biographical details based on information provided in the biographies in Jeroen Giltaij and Jan Kelch, Praise of Ships and the Sea: The Dutch Marine Painters of the 17th century, Rotterdam & Berlin, 1997, p. 315 & George S. Keyes, Mirror of Empire: Dutch Marine Art of the 17th Century, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1990, pp. 402-403.