Maritime Masterpieces

Six centuries of maritime painting

Maritime art: works of art that focus on ships and the sea. The maritime world has long been a huge source of inspiration for many. Painters such as Willem van de Velde the Younger achieved international fame by specialising in maritime scenes, but great artists such as Hieronymus Bosch also found inspiration there. All works of art have been chosen because of their high quality and master skills of the artist. Together they present a beautiful overview of 600 years of maritime art.

In their art, painters present a personal view of the maritime world they live in. The paintings thus are artistic masterpieces as well as mirrors of the past and present. That’s why this exhibition makes you look at them from two angles: an art historian view as well as a maritime historical perspective.

Ship model of a cargo vessel from the Mediterranean Sea, known as the 'Matarómodel' (1425) by unknownMaritime Museum Rotterdam

Mataró model

This model of a coca is almost 600 years old, making it the oldest Western European model of a ship in the world. It has the typical ‘forecastle’ of the early  fifteenth century and some wonderful details. 

The coca in art

Cocas are often depicted in medieval paintings. That is not so surprising when you know that this type of ship was found all over Europe. There was a great deal of trade between European countries, so the ships were travelling between harbours in Northern and Southern Europe.

The legend of Hippo, a gouache copy of a painting by Bernardino Fungai (1700/1799) by UnknownMaritime Museum Rotterdam

The legend of Hippo

This is the story of Hippo, who was sacrificed to the god Poseidon. In this drawing, you see her three times, wearing a pinkish-red dress every time. 

On the right, Hippo is being thrown off the ship as a sacrifice

Fungai painted the legend of Hippo with a ship that dominated the seas of Europe in his day: the coca or caravel. 

In the middle she is rescued from the water by a dolphin and on the left she steps up the bank. Poseidon with his ever-present trident watches her resignedly from the river. 

Armed merchant vessel and other vessels off Dordrecht (1600/1625) by Cornelis Claesz. van WieringenMaritime Museum Rotterdam

Ships large and small

This work reflects the maritime world at the start of the 17th century. This was a time when the Dutch explored the world by ship. We see seafaring three-masters, capable of sailing to the Far East and the Americas. In the foreground, beach barges and other fishing boats.

Sublime storyteller

Van Wieringen painted narrative works with incredibly precise depictions of people and ships. These days we would call it a conversation piece. He painted recognisable activities, but also added the occasional surprise. Can you see that lad smoking in the foreground?

Ships in front of the Roads of Dordrecht (1650/1675) by Jacob BellevoisMaritime Museum Rotterdam


This artwork by Jacob Bellevois exudes peace and calm. In the middle of the river, is a warship. The sails are being taken in and there are no signs of impending military action, perhaps referring to the peace that returned after the Dutch Revolt ended in 1648.

Conventional Maritime Artist

Bellevois was overshadowed by Porcellis and De Vlieger with their international reputations. He will have been inspired by De Vlieger's art. That is evident from the highly atmospheric clouds and the composition with the low horizon and the flat, open land.

Ships on Rough Seas (1670/1708) by Ludolf BakhuizenMaritime Museum Rotterdam

Maritime wealth

The splendid gilded transom of the Amsterdam warship on the left is gleaming in the sunlight and the large red, white and blue nation flag blowing in the wind exudes power. Bakhuizen has also painted a flute ship and a pink going herring fishing.

Master of dramatic light

Bakhuizen lets the sun shine through the clouds during this storm, in a way that draws your attention immediately to the billowing sails and the huge waves. He is classed among the leading marine painters due to his dramatic use of light and his virtuoso painting technique.

Battle of the Sound (1660/1660) by Willem van de Velde the ElderMaritime Museum Rotterdam

Battle of the Sound

The Baltic trade was incredibly important for the Dutch Republic’s economy. The passage via the Sound, had to stay open at all times. But when Sweden laid siege to most of Denmark in 1658, that access came under threat. 

That was why a combined Dutch and Danish fleet under the command of Lieutenant Admiral Baron Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam took up arms against the Swedish, defeating them in battle on 29 October. They suffered some losses too, though: Vice-admiral Witte de With was killed.

William van de Velde the Elder

Willem van de Velde the Elder often witnessed sea battles first-hand, while some of his paintings are based on the testimonies of others. He was probably present at the Battle of the Sound as his galliot is shown prominently in the foreground.

King Willem II visits the Squadron of Prince Hendrik at Vlissingen (1844/1844) by Théodore GudinMaritime Museum Rotterdam

Royal visit

Prince Hendrik of the Netherlands salutes his father on the aft deck of the impressive black frigate the Rijn. Through his visit and commission for the painting, Willem II was highlighting his position as monarch and his goal of making the Netherlands a maritime power again.

Royal commission

That demonstration of power is reflected in Gudin’s stylistic choices. He has painted the warships and the royal guest very precisely and he has accentuated the rigid formation and the interlocking lines of the masts and yards, all of which sends a message of power. 

Beach Scene at Scheveningen with Fishing Boats (1845/1845) by Charles RochussenMaritime Museum Rotterdam

The beach as a place of work

The beach was largely the domain of the fishermen around 1880-1910. It was their place of work. This was where the boats landed, and where the catch was unloaded and sold. Maintenance work on the boats was also carried out on the beach. It was also a place for social encounter.

Rochussen from Rotterdam

Rochussen was very observant. He looked closely and understood what he was seeing, from the ships to the hard everyday work of the fishermen. He portrayed the beauty of that life with a Romantic sensitivity.

A Fisherman Waving (1900/1900) by Charles H.M. van WijkMaritime Museum Rotterdam

Fishermen’s clothing

This fisherman is wearing an oilskin, linen sailcloth that had been immersed in linseed oil as many as five times and then dried to make the material water-resistant. All his gear is  designed to protect him from the harsh weather and working conditions on board.

Sculpting in nature

The sculptor Charles van Wijk liked to work in the open air. He would set off with a wheelbarrow full of clay. He was intrigued by ordinary people and wanted to incorporate their movements that were quite different from the static poses of a model in a studio.

The Port of Rotterdam (1905/1905) by André WilderMaritime Museum Rotterdam

Feeling of the port

Using wild brushstrokes that might seem a little excessive, Wilder expresses the feeling the Rotterdam port gives him. By ignoring the rules of perspective, he emphasises how full the harbour is and how busy it is on the water.

Rampant clouds of steam

The artist André Wilder, born and brought up in Paris, has painted rampant clouds of steam filling the harbour. White clouds puff from the chimneys of the small, powerful steam-powered tug boats and also from the large steamships at the quayside on the left.

View of the Leuvehaven and the Boompjes in Rotterdam (1908) by Victor GilsoulMaritime Museum Rotterdam

Dockers’ House

The building that the tram is passing is the dockers’ house on the corner of Leuvehaven and Boompjes. This was where dockers were hired and paid at the start of the twentieth century. Dockers – port workers who loaded and unloaded ships – were hired on a daily basis. 

In praise of Rotterdam

Gilsoul, a Belgian Impressionist from Brussels, followed in the footsteps of the French artists and came to Rotterdam, where he gave his own interpretation of the port city. You can almost hear the sounds of the city and you sense the hectic activity in the streets and on the water.

‘Electric Cranes in the Shipyard’ (1914/1914) by Johan H. van MastenbroekMaritime Museum Rotterdam

Electricity led to modernisation

Unfortunately Van Mastenbroek does not say which shipyard this was. It could be the Fijenoord shipyard, Rijkée or perhaps Piet Smit jr., big shipyards in the south of Rotterdam in 1914. We can be sure that he has depicted a large, innovative shipyard for it has electric cranes

The beauty of industry

Van Mastenbroek was a classic Impressionist and not one of art’s modernisers. He disregarded these movements when painting his city and the developments he saw in the port. The subject matter, on the other hand, was modern, as he saw beauty where others did not.

‘Saipem 7000’ (2006/2006) by Sasja HagensMaritime Museum Rotterdam

Immensity of an island platform

The huge semi-submersible crane vessel Saipem 7000 that is depicted, was in a dry dock for maintenance. The colossus, covered in green algae and brown rust, towered 20 metres above the artist Hagens.

‘The Great Voyage’ (1998/2011) by Otto EgbertsMaritime Museum Rotterdam

The Great Voyage

For the artist Egberts, the Great Voyage is not the journey by ocean-going freight vessels, even though he has depicted a kind of container ship. For him, the Great Voyage is nothing less than life itself. Just as a ship sails across the water, so we follow the path of life.

As in life

Just as life can take new directions, so Egberts modified the original version of this painting. The original was more colourful and optimistic than the rather sober and downbeat work you see today. He dedicated this artwork to two good friends who had passed away suddenly. They had reached the end of their Great Voyage.

Credits: Story

Maritime Museum Rotterdam

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