Ships Trading in the East
November 30, 1609
Mirza Firuz Shah
Ships bearing the flags of several different nations are shown in a bay. A fortress stands on a rugged headland, on the far left, with a rocky coastline and islet beyond. Figures can be seen on a jetty, in the left foreground, including two exquisitely dressed men in the far left. They are attended by servants carrying a parasol to shield them from the sun. Further along traders in turbans, also sheltered by parasols, are negotiating with seamen who have unloaded bales of merchandise. The large ship, on the left, flies the flags of Holland and Zeeland and has fired her guns in salute. The three-master, in the centre, with furled mizzen and topsails, flies English colours and the Royal Standard. The vessel to her right is Spanish and is preparing to fire a salute. The ship, in the distance, on far right is, also, Dutch and is flying the Double Prince ensign of the Admiralty of Amsterdam and a Dutch pennant. There are small boats by the stone jetty. One with a red and white striped flag is preparing to land and a small Dutch sailing boat is approaching from the far right. Despite its idealized landscape, this scene is traditionally believed to represent the East Indies, a theory supported by some of the figures’ costumes.
The painting is unusual since it shows Dutch, Spanish and English ships peacefully trading together. This motif may be intended as an allegory of the benefits of peace during The Twelve Years' Truce, 1609-21, between Spain and her rebellious Dutch provinces. It has been suggested that the painting may have been ordered from Vroom by the Archduke and Archduchess Albert and Isabella, the Spanish governors in Brussels, since the Haarlem-based artist’s wife was granted permission to send a chest containing three paintings to Brussels in 1614. There is no specific evidence for this but the Southern Netherlands were certainly committed to maintaining peace during this period. Therefore the commission may have come from the South. If so, like van Eertvelt’s image of the Scandinavian timber trade (BHC0750) the painting would be evidence of an ongoing appreciation and transfer of art, artists and commissions across the internal Netherlands border after 1581. Considering the date (1614), one could argue for a different interpretation and suggest that Vroom’s painting responds to Hugo Grotius’ ‘Mare Liberum’, published in Amsterdam in 1609. Grotius’ treatise was written as a legal justification of the Dutch capture of the Portuguese carrack Santa Catarina in 1603. Vroom’s painting may reflect the ideological argument expounded by Grotius which favoured free trade and considered all oceans as international territories. Dutch economic wealth was strongly dependent on these principles.
The artist, Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom, was born in Haarlem in 1562 or 1563. Initially he earned his living as a painter of Delftware. Following this, he travelled extensively in Spain, Italy, France and Poland. In Italy he became acquainted with the painter Paulus Bril and obtained work from Cardinal Ferdinand de’ Medici. On his final return to Haarlem, he developed his career as a marine painter. In the 1590s, he was commissioned to design a series of ten tapestries for the English Lord Admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham (Earl of Nottingham from 1596), to commemorate his victory over the Spanish Armada. From 1650 these hung in the House of Lords in Westminster and were destroyed in the fire of 1834. Although they are recorded in engravings, made by John Pine, in 1739. Vroom pioneered marine painting as a specialist form as the Dutch rose to become a leading maritime power. He worked widely in Europe and his importance was internationally recognized. He is regarded as the father of marine painting and he pioneered the painting of naval scenes and battles in a new style, showing careful attention to naval detail and rigging. Vroom died in Haarlem in 1640. He is generally hailed to be the first ‘Dutch’ marine artist. He outlived his pupil, Jan Porcellis, by eight years. The painting is signed 'Vroom /f 1614' on the rocky shore, lower left.
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