The marine painter Aernout Smit knew exactly what ingredients were needed to produce an exciting seascape: a darkening, cloudy sky, towering waves, treacherous-looking rocks, and the ominous remains of a shipwreck. It is immediately apparent that the ships in these turbulent waves are in grave peril. The two ships closest to the jagged-looking cliffs are quite literally in low water or ‘on the rocks’. The crew on the foremost merchantman are trying furiously to avert disaster: they appear to have eased out a sail to prevent the ship from being dashed to pieces against the cliffs. They evidently have little confidence that this desperate manoeuvre will save them, since some are preparing to abandon ship in a lifeboat. The merchantman on the left, which is also flying a Dutch flag, is still at a safe distance from land – it too is using only a single sail. The two ships in the background are also having difficulty weathering the tempestuous conditions. All the evidence suggests that the storm has blown up suddenly, taking the sailors completely by surprise.
Smit used a piece of driftwood in the foreground for his signature. Seascape painters often chose to sign their names on a piece of driftwood or other flotsam and jetsam. In more than one respect, Smit was an artist who adhered to traditions. He is seen as the best contemporary follower of Ludolf Backhuysen (cat. no. 2), one of the leading exponents of marine painting in the province of Holland. For although Smit had trained with Jan Theunisz. Blanckerhoff (1628-1669)1, the main influence reflected in his oeuvre is that of Backhuysen. Indeed, the frequent misattribution of Smit’s work to Backhuysen underscores the similarity of his paintings to those of his famous contemporary. Smit also made copies after Backhuysen, a fact that is confirmed by a notarial deed of 1689 in which he declared that some two years earlier he had copied a ‘square painting’ by Backhuysen, a view of the IJ in Amsterdam, a copy commissioned by Hendrick Grel, the owner of the original painting.2
Little is known about Smit’s life, and the few scraps of knowledge we can glean derive from references in archival documents.3 In a document dating from 1667, Smit explained that he had painted for some time in an attic rented by the art dealer Laurens Cornelisz. de Coninck in a house on the Singel canal.4 It is assumed that Smit took commissions from this art dealer after completing his training. A year earlier, his teacher Blanckerhoff had left the capital, after living there for seven years. Smit was married to Marietie Jans Weema, who ran a grocery shop. The first time his name appears in the membership list of the St Luke’s Guild in Amsterdam is in 1688.5 He specialised in seascapes, but he also painted landscapes and beach scenes.
The dramatic play of light in Ships on a stormy sea immediately evokes the atmosphere of a Backhuysen, it displays the contrast between a dark foreground and brightly illuminated rocks that is so characteristic of that artist’s work. Around the 1660s, Backhuysen’s fashionable style was emulated by other seascape painters, and it seems that Smit too adopted it at an early stage.6 It is difficult to demonstrate the development of his oeuvre, however, since Smit very rarely dated his work; there is no year on the painting discussed here. Smit did not shrink from painting large-scale, monumental scenes with imposing cloudy skies. His ships are depicted convincingly and reflect a sound understanding of shipbuilding.7 These qualities are fully exemplified by Ships on a stormy sea.