Imaginary seas: Ludolf Bakhuysen

March 2, 2010

The Rijksmuseum website explains that Ludolf Bakhuysen’s Ships in Distress in a Heavy Storm (c.1690) was ‘not intended as a depiction of a historical event’. Apparently Bakhuysen used to sail out to sea during different weather conditions and observe the colours of the sea and sky. Context slips away similarly in a description on the National Gallery website, in relation to his painting An English Vessel and a Man-of-war in a Rough Sea (1680s). There it is explained that ‘A preparatory drawing [...] identifies the view as the mouth of the Thames at Deal, Kent, but the coast there differs from the drawing and is almost certainly imaginary’.

Some subjects have signs of fixed place. A View across a River near Dordrecht (?) – to carry on using the galleries’ titles – depicts a ship flying the Dutch colours against the backdrop of a town that ‘seems to be Dordrecht’. Another painting, Dutch Men-of-war entering a Mediterranean Port (1681) is described thus on the NG site:

The man-of-war on the left flies the Dutch colours and has the arms of Amsterdam on her stern. Another man-of-war in the right middle-distance carries the flag of the States-General and a plain red ensign. Other small vessels are visible and fly Dutch colours. The view is probably imaginary, but the galleys show that a Mediterranean scene is intended.

What do we mean by probably imaginary in relation to paintings? Do we mean that the painting was not created at the site of a real scene, or that those exact visual circumstances never occurred? What constitutes an ‘event’? Is an ‘historical event’ something that is supposed to appear as a set of sensory effects not saturated in an index of experience, as Bakhuysen would have had of the sea if he regularly sailed in storms?

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