“Poetry of the sea”: around the world with holland’s painters

A man wearing a mouth guard stands in front of a crude painting of sailing ships in front of exotic rocky coastline. It is almost a symbolic scene in this corona summer. Wanderlust is raw, but travel opportunities are limited. In an exhibition at the wallraf-richartz museum, one can now at least dream of going away.

The show "poetry of the sea" from ascension day (21. May) until the 11. April next year brings together more than 20 works by dutch marine painters such as hendrick corneliszoon vroom, jan porcellis, jan van goyen and salomon van ruysdael.

The water here sometimes looks like a grooved tablecloth. On it the high-towered wooden ships sway in the dunung. For the first time, every detail is depicted: gunports, rigging, stern mirrors, flags and pennants. Sometimes the ships lie with reefed sails in the backlight, almost like a silhouette.

This genre of painting was invented by the dutch back then. It is striking that other rough seafaring nations such as the portuguese, the spanish and the english did not produce such paintings, says curator anja sevcik. Willem van de velde the elder and his son were even appointed by the english king karl II. Brought to london because there was no one there who could paint ships so well.

Back then, in 17. In the twentieth century, many people never once fall in love with their place of birth. Hundreds of thousands of germans, however, traveled around the world on the ships of the dutch east and west indies companies. The dutch themselves were usually too good for the game, but the uprooted war refugees and economic refugees from a germany ravaged by three years of war had no other choice.

As majestic as the sailors look in the paintings: living on them was the holle. There were wooden traps. The intermediate decks on which the teams were housed could only be entered in a hunched-over posture. Sparse light penetrated through the hatches and ports, which also had to be closed during heavy swells. Then the oxygen became so scarce that not even a candle burned.

It smelled musty of rat droppings and rotten wood and pungently of urine. The drinking water soon became so infested with vermin that it could only be drunk through a sieve. Vitamin C deficiency triggered scurvy: teeth fell out, gums took on a black color, skin was covered with eczema.

For the 250 sailors and soldiers on board a rough three-master, there were no more than two privies – and they were in the open air above the open sea! At the very front, where the bowsprit pointed ahead like a long nose, you had to squat on a grate, a daredevil affair. For cleaning, the frayed end of a rope could be pulled through the water – one rope for all, mind you!

Well, and so the occupation with seafaring may have a salutary effect for all quarantine-damaged people: at home it’s not so bad either. The old hollanders already knew this and had a corresponding proverb: "oost, west – thuis best". East or west: it’s best at home.