The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. has created an exhibit of 45 paintings, drawings, prints, rare books, and ship models that explores the complex relationship the Netherlands has had with water through the ages.
“Water, Wind and Waves: Marine Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age” opens July 1 and runs through November 25 in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art.
Some 400 years after most works in the exhibit were created, they stand as a testament to the defining feature that water has played in Dutch society. The Netherlands is known for its strong relationship to the North Sea and the world’s oceans, its network of rivers, canals, and waterways, and for managing rising sea levels.
The paintings feature extraordinary levels of detail and range, from depictions of lively celebratory scenes and naval battles to Albert Cuyp’s stills of the harbor of Dordrecht with the sun setting over the city. What sets this exhibition apart from other marine art exhibitions is its inclusion of paintings featuring ice instead of water. Scenes of frozen rivers bustling with activity are featured prominently.
Through a variety of subjects, the paintings highlight the complex relationship the Dutch have had with water, both the prosperity that comes from it and the fear it can instill.
Water has been a source of wealth and naval prowess, making the Dutch the “envy of some, fear of others, and wonder of all their neighbors,” said Alexandra Libby, assistant curator of the exhibition.
At the same time, the Dutch have also had a healthy fear of the sea, as the country was, and still is, largely located below sea level. The Dutch had to learn to live with the sea as its neighbor.
The enthusiasm for marine imagery also found expression in ship models. These were manufactured by the same ship workers that produced full-sized ships. At the time, the Dutch ship-building industry was unparalleled, both in size and expertise.
At the preview of the exhibition, Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, said: “The exhibition expands the definition of marine paintings to fully consider the variety of ways in which the Dutch relationship with water was manifested in the visual arts.”