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Ludolf Backhuysen - The Konig Willem III and other ships in the roads off Texel

Ludolf Backhuysen

The Konig Willem III and other ships in the roads off Texel

Oil on canvas: 22 x 28 (in) / 55.9 x 71.1 (cm)
Signed with initials upper centre: LB

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Emden, East Friesland 1630 - 1708 Amsterdam

Ref: BD 108


The Konig Willem III and other ships


Signed with initials upper centre: LB

Oil on canvas: 22 x 28 in / 55.9 x 71.1 cm

Frame size: 29 x 34 ½ in / 73.7 x 87.6 cm

Painted circa 1690





John Smith & Son, London;

by whom sold on 21st October 1865 for £200 to (Thomas) Henry Allen Poynder (d.1887) of Hilmarton Manor and Hartham Park, near Calne, Wiltshire;

by inheritance to his nephew Sir John Dickson-Poynder, later Lord Islington, GCMG, DSO, KStJ, PC (1866-1936), Hartham Park

Alan Jacobs Gallery, London, circa 1985;

by whom sold to a New Hampshire private collector



Atlanta, High Museum of Art/Denver Art Museum/Seattle Art Museum, Inspiring Impressionism: the Impressionists and the Art of the Past, 2007-8, ed. Ann Dumas, p.94, cat. no.1, illus. in colour; p.257



MS Day Book of John Smith & Son, vol. IV, 1848 June 3-1867 March, p.666: ‘A fine effective picture of a sea view during a stiff breeze’ (National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum, London) 



Darkening cumulus clouds in close proximity to a steely-grey cloudbank indicate strong winds and a rough sea. The mise-en-scène is the North Sea off the Dutch coast. In the distance on the right shafts of light illuminate the Dutch coastal dunes. The view at close range is dominated by a sailing boat of the kaag type in the foaming surf. She is sailing out of the picture in the foreground, slightly to the right. In this way she is presented to us from her most graphic angle. True to type, her lee-board is lying on the gunwale. In the boat four men are occupied with marine tasks. From the wealth of upright masts, standing and running rigging  and taut orange sail Backhuysen has created an eye-catching attraction, capable of holding its own against the mighty three-master in the middle distance. On the taffrail of the latter a roundel bears the image of a gentleman wearing a periwig surmounted by a crown.  Dutch colours flutter from every mast. The pennant on the main mast indicates the presence on board of the Admiral of the Fleet. Closer in to the coastline on the right is another three-master with Dutch colours. The slackened lower-, main- and mizzen-sails give an indication of wind conditions. Her taffrail also bears an orange-gold motif in high relief, easily identifiable as a bird with wings widespread, bending over its brood. Set behind the ship the distinctive outline of a flute (fluyt) is recognizable. Here and there smaller sailing boats enliven the triangular baroque composition, which in the Dutch marine painting of Ludolf Backhuysen evolved into its accepted classical form. In accordance with the pictorial concept of Backhuysen’s late creative period his setting of the buoy in the right foreground of the grey-green North Sea puts in place a really small yet effective tool for creating a balanced composition. 

The kaag, which is forging vigorously ahead, often appears in Ludolf Backhuysen’s oeuvre.  In the Golden Age the sailing boat was fittingly one of the commonest craft along the coast and on the inland waterways. The wide and roomy flat-bottomed kaag was purely a transport vessel and was used in shipping lanes for freight and ferry work. In this picture near her leeboard a boxlike fitment with a cask in front of it is plainly seen inside the boat, indicating the loading of freight. In doing this the kaag served as a lighter for loading or unloading the great East Indiamen in the roads off Texel. It is very possible that just such an occurrence is represented in this picture. The shape and disposition of the hilly, dune-covered coastline is similar to that of Backhuysen’s The merchant shipping anchorage off the island of Texel (oil on canvas, 106.6 x 167.5 cm. initialled and dated 1665) in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. The village of Oude Schild with the tip of the steeple of the Reformed Church and the huge dune Hoge Berg behind it, is in that picture reproduced in the centre background. The picture The Koning Willem III… depicts the roads off Texel from a different perspective, further to the east. These roads were the rendezvous for the large Dutch merchantmen and also for the men-of-war which dropped anchor and were loaded and unloaded here, as due to their deep draught they could not broach the shallows of the Zuider Zee without running into difficulties. The loading and unloading was done by lighters, often of the kaag type. Aft of our kaag someone is clearly occupied in setting the jib. A man in red outer garments is working the rudder. Everything points to the fact that the journey has begun, the boat has turned away from her goal, the ship on the left, and is making straight for the coast. What is remarkable is that in the meantime the kaag’s anchor has not yet been raised, its rope clearly visible on the left gunwale. Meanwhile the three-master is preparing to set course for the open sea. She is uncommonly large. With three continuous gun decks she is thereby one of only 18 three-deckers built in the Netherlands between 1682 and 1721.[1]  As far as identifying her is concerned, the Koning Willem III can be the only consideration, because of the taffrail decoration of the crowned male image. This three-decker belonging to the Zeeland Admiralty was launched in 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution, its history directly linked to that of her namesake (the English-Dutch King William III). He is better known as William of Orange in Britain, where he and his wife Mary (a daughter of James II) ruled jointly from 1689 until her death in 1694, Willem then as sole monarch until his death in 1702. From the 23rd May to the 3rd June 1692 the ship together with the combined English and Dutch fleets under Russell and Philip van Almonde took part in the victorious sea battle near Cape La Hogue against the French fleet under Tourville, and again in 1696 in an attack against the French off Dunkirk. France was planning a landing offensive against England. Faced with this threat in 1695 precautionary measures had already been taken by King Willem III, should a major battle occur. As the French chose to carry out the equipping of their fleet in Dunkirk, the rumour spread that the attack was to be directed against Zeeland, in particular against Vlissingen (Flushing), Goeree or Hellevoet. In response to a large deployment of French troops Zeeland mobilised and in February of that year had already assembled a large squadron in the roads off Vlissingen.[2]  It consisted of men-of-war, three East Indiamen and five privateers under the command of Lieutenant-Admiral Cornelis Evertsen on the Koning Willem III, the 92 gun three-decker. In conjunction with further squadrons belonging to the States-General the battle force had to move to form under the supreme command of Gerard Callenburgh. Before this stage was reached, it became known that the French attack was directed against England, to whose aid the Dutch fleet now came.  The Republic succeeded in ferrying twenty battalions, 7000 infantry men in all, across to England while the fleet stood simultaneously at the ready. This had the effect of deterring Louis XIV from launching an attack and of forcing James II finally to relinquish his plans to mount the English throne. The Koning Willem III consequently took part in two successful actions by the combined English-Dutch fleet against France, so affording Ludolf Backhuysen a welcome tool for a patriotically inclined marine painting. 


The painting is undated. Suggesting a date for a late work by Backhuysen, which is what we have here, has its difficulties. Paintings executed from 1680 until after 1700 reveal in the main the experienced artist, adhering to a tried and tested prescription of painting technique, colour palette and compositional scheme. This work could just as well have been executed shortly after the building of the Koning Willem III in 1688/89 as after the triumphant victory at La Hogue or even later than 1696. In 1712 the Koning Willem III was still in service. France and Spain also continued to pose a threat so that right to the end of Backhuysen’s life the threat of danger for the fleets remained a real fact of life. This constant menace seems to have been the most likely reason for this marine painting. While the task of the two William van de Veldes was mainly the documentation of maritime events, Backhuysen’s lay predominantly in threatening and intimidating the enemy and instilling courage into his people. In so doing there was no compelling reason for the motif to represent an actual event. 


In this context the ship in the right picture half with her striking taffrail decoration offers a hint both interesting and direct: as previously mentioned above, this decoration displays a large bird with wings outspread and head bowed on its breast. Below it, its brood. Without further ado the bird can be identified as a pelican. As a rule the 17th century taffrail decoration of Dutch three-masters indicated the name of the ship. In 1672 a ship by the name of The Pelican formed part of the fleet of Michiel de Ruyter off Walcheren but she was a so-called fireship, a tactical weapon, usually a ship consigned for scrap, filled with ammunition that was steered on an opportune course towards the enemy. As early as 1653 another ship of this name was already part of the Dutch fighting fleet but there cannot have been any further reason for her to feature prominently in a marine painting by Ludolf Backhuysen at least 35 years later. No other ship of this name appears in the Admiralty Shipping Lists. The motif is, however, a very prominent one in Renaissance emblemata, the art of allegory in 16th and 17th century humanism in which an encrypted pictorial motif with a motto was followed by an epigram for the purposes of didactic and moral edification. For 16th and 17th century Dutch painting with its numerous allegorical layers, e.g. on a subject such as transitoriness, the art of the emblem is demonstrably of central significance. In both these centuries the Netherlands and Germany produced numerous writers in this sphere.  Amongst those most in vogue were Joachim Camerarius the Younger (Nuremberg, 1534 – 1598 Nuremberg), Nicolas Reusner (Lemberg 1545 – 1602 Jena), and Gabriel Rollenhagen (Magdeburg 1583 – 1619 Magdeburg). An emblem is made up of three parts. It begins with a brief ‘motto’ or Latin ‘inscriptio’.  There then follows the picture, ‘pictura’, below which appears the ‘subscriptio’. This closing text, explaining and interpreting the picture, often makes use of an epigram or moral precept. The motif on the ship’s taffrail in Backhuysen’s painting appears in the emblem books by the above-mentioned Camerarius, Rollenhagen and Reusner as, ‘Pelican which feeds its brood with its own blood’.[3]  The motto runs: ‘Pro Lege et Pro Grege’, ‘For the Law and the People’. In a margin Reusner entered the word ‘self- sacrifice’ and in his subscriptio gave the following explanatory meaning: ‘Wise King Alfonso of Naples painted you, pelican, with his noble hand, as you sink your pointed beak into your pierced breast, to give life to your brood. To die thus for his people and for justice and by his death to restore life to the people is also the holy duty of kings, as Christ (too) restored life to the pious by his death and with his life restored peace and the administration of  law and order’. The motif together with its meaning was the impresa, the motto of King Alfonso of Aragon. Here in a brilliant move Backhuysen has transferred this motto to King Willem III, by clearly emphasising the eponymous ship with the portrait of the monarch. The ‘subscriptio’ of the emblem was of real significance at the end of the 17th century because of the dangerous threat posed by England and France. For the ‘pictor doctus’, the learned painter, which Ludolf Backhuysen was - in Emden he had attended the humanist Latin school – the use of symbols in his marine paintings is not unusual. In his verses couched in Latin (Rijksprentenkabinet Amsterdam) and his self-portraits (e.g. Amsterdam’s Historisch Museum) he indicates his level of education, particularly in his late creative period. Inexact renditions of ships, laid at his door in the past, are deliberate deviations from the documentary records to raise his marine paintings above the purely documentary to a higher level of significance. In this way e.g. the taffrail decoration of Unity (Eendracht) in his depiction of the Four-Day Battle in the Copenhagen Museum is not a faithful record of fact. The modified form of the Batavian lion holding the seven arrows (for the Seven Independent Provinces) is meant far more as a call to unity.  Ludolf Backhuysen’s educated clientele recognized this and thought highly of the artist as on a similar intellectual level, one whose pictures, in addition to their artistic élan, contained an intellectually formulated statement. When necessary, in response to actual, maritime events (e.g. the transfer of supreme command to Michiel de Ruyter, Landesmuseum Emden) he made his position as a patriot quite clear. At the same time the marine paintings of his early and middle periods of creativity seem spontaneously executed, close to the people and emphatic in expression. His late marine paintings from the period of the King-stadholder are presented by the artist in a more extravagant mode. The majestic rendering of form and palette seem to accommodate the royal Stadholder. The painting The Koning Willem III… (Richard Green, London) is an exemplar for the multi-layered language to be reckoned with in the works of this period. 


In addition the painting has several interesting parallels to three masterworks by Backhuysen.  These are The frigate Brielle on the Maas off Rotterdam, (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam)[4], The Princes Maria on the Ij off Durgerdam (Dutch private collection)[5] and The Amsterdam off Hellvoetsluis (Richard Green, London)[6]. In each painting events concerning Willem III are depicted.  The main motifs are on each occasion the ships the Brielle, the Princes Maria and the Amsterdam. Great red ensigns bearing the King’s motto ‘Pro Religione et Libertate’ ‘For religious freedom’, flutter from the two first-named ships. From the poop of the Amsterdam in the painting The Amsterdam off Hellvoetsluis a bright red ensign streams with the words ‘Pugno pro Patria’, ‘I fight for my country’, demonstrating that since the time of the above- mentioned King Alfonso the motto of a monarch had not lost a fraction of its immediacy.  The depiction of the Princes Maria is one of the few instances in Dutch 17th century marine painting as a whole, and unique in Backhuysen’s oeuvre, in which a Dutch three-decker is represented.  In the very same way as the Koning Willem III, she was built by Willem III during the course of his rearmament campaign, and she also took part in the Battle of La Hogue in 1692.  The same is true for the Amsterdam depicted in The Amsterdam off Hellvoetsluis.


The painting The Koning Willem III and other ships off Texel does not depict an historical maritime event but in its presentation stands in close proximity to the group of great historical maritime events concerning the English-Dutch King William III, whose plans and deeds are praised as glorious and honourable by Ludolf Backhuysen in this exemplary seascape with its clear symbolic references.


Yet in contrast to the great historical seascapes in which the interaction of clouds and water plays a subordinate role to the splendour of the compositions, here the elements gain greater prominence. Backhuysen’s contemporaries also held his seascapes in high regard, above all as ‘weather-scapes’. The artist did not fail to take this into consideration in the painting The Koning Willem III….  The viewer too was aware that this observation of nature was only an ‘apparent’ reality. Yet the mise-en-scène won particular favour judged on its artistic standards. Here too the interplay of light and shade within the lively cloud structure is subordinated to Backhuysen’s precisely calculated pictorial management, by which he created an admirably realistic scene from the maritime routine of the Golden Age.


The painting displays one of the many successful compositions which became accepted as exemplars. A comparable part-composition of the painting was auctioned as School of Backhuysen under the title Shipping in a choppy sea, 43 x 61 cm, on the 6th April 1989 as lot no. 92 at Christie’s in New York.


Report by Dr Gerlinde de Beer.






Bibliographic literature mentioned in the notes.


J. van Beylen 1970:

Jules van Beylen Schepen van de Nederlanden, Amsterdam 1970.


Mollema 1941:

J.C. Mollema, Geschiedenis van Nederland ter Zee, 4 parts (part 3), Amsterdam 1941.


de Beer 2002:

Gerlinde de Beer: Ludolf Backhuysen (1630-1708).  Sein Leben und Werk. Zwolle 2002.


Henkel/Schöne 1976:

Arthur Henkel, Albrecht Schöne (ed.): Emblemata. Handbuch zur Sinnbildkunst des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts.  Stuttgart 1976 (revised new edition).



Emden, East Friesland 1630 - 1708 Amsterdam


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.



[1] See: Beylen 1970, p.18

[2] See: Mollema 1941, pp.153 ff.

[3] Henkel/Schöne 1976, Emblem 811, 812

[4] See plate in: de Beer 2002, p.127, plate 150.

[5] See plate in: de Beer 2002, p. 129, plate 151.

[6] See plate in: de Beer 2002, p.131, plate 153.

Other Works By
Ludolf Backhuysen:

Ludolf Backhuysen - Tsar Peter the Great's boeier off Amsterdam


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