Ludolf Backhuysen was one of the leading Dutch marine painters of the seventeenth century, renowned for his meticulous attention to the details of shipping and atmospheric evocation of maritime conditions. He was born in Emden, East Friesland in 1630 and trained as a clerk in his native town. Shortly before 1650 he joined the Bartolotti trading house in Amsterdam, where his fine handwriting attracted attention. He practised calligraphy all his life and until the 1660s made penschilderijen – pen drawings on prepared canvas, panel or parchment – of shipping scenes, a technique developed by Willem van de Velde the Elder.
According to Houbraken, Backhuysen learned to paint in oils from the marine specialists Hendrik Dubbels and Allaert van Everdingen. His earliest known oils, such as Ships in a gathering storm, 1658 (Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig) have a silvery-grey tonality and simple composition, influenced by the work of Dubbels, Everdingen and Simon de Vlieger. Also in 1658, Backhuysen painted a marine background to a portrait by Bartolomeus van der Helst.
In 1656 Backhuysen was referred to as a calligrapher and in 1657 and 1660 as a draughtsman (teyckenaer). He did not declare his profession as a painter until his third marriage, to Alida Greffet, a wealthy woman who ran a silk business, in 1664. She left him a fortune when she died in 1678 and Backhuysen was married for a fourth time, to Anna de Hooghe, a prosperous merchant’s daughter.
Backhuysen joined the Amsterdam guild of painters in 1663. In 1665 he was commissioned by the burgomaster of Amsterdam to paint a View of Amsterdam and the IJ (Louvre, Paris) as a present for Louis XIV’s foreign minister Hugues de Lionne, Marquis de Berny. After Willem van de Velde the Elder and Younger left for England because of economic uncertainty resulting from the renewal of war between England and Holland in 1672, Backhuysen became the leading marine painter in the Netherlands. According to Houbraken, Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, Frederick I of Prussia and Peter the Great visited his studio; the latter is said to have taken drawing lessons from him.
After 1665 Backhuysen’s compositions become more daring, his colours brighter and the atmosphere more dramatic, with choppy seas and stormy skies. He was often inspired by historical or military subjects, for example the First day of the Four Days’ Battle, 11th-14th June 1666 (circa 1670; Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen). Much of his work, however, celebrates Amsterdam and her mercantile trade. His pupils and studio assistants included Abraham Storck, Wigerus Vitringa and Gerrit Pompe.
In 1701, at the age of seventy-one, Backhuysen published his first etchings, D’Y Stroom en Zeegezichten (Views of the River IJ and the Sea). He also made fine drawings of seascapes and oil portraits of his friends, a civilised mixture of artists, scholars and poets. Backhuysen died in Amsterdam in 1708. None of his children became artists, but a grandson, Ludolf Backhuysen the Younger (1717-1782), imitated him.
The work of Ludolf Backhuysen is represented in the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam; the Mauritshuis, The Hague; the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen; the National Gallery, London; the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich; the Louvre, Paris and the Pitti Palace, Florence.