The work of the Rotterdam artist Lieve Verschuier, who is little known today, has a quite distinctive quality. Verschuier’s oeuvre reflects the way in which marine painting developed after about 1650. Instead of rather tonal paintings with a restrained use of colour, he generally produced scenes featuring strong light effects. His work is thus distinguished from that of his contemporaries by a different use of colour and stronger contrasts. Verschuier was trained in Rotterdam and probably also in Amsterdam; it seems likely that he spent some time working in the nearby village of Weesp in the studio of the well-known marine painter Simon de Vlieger (1600/1-1653), who taught the great Dutch marine painter Willem van de Velde. After a few years in Italy, where he drew inspiration for specific light effects from none other than Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), the celebrated French painter of harbour scenes, he returned to his home town of Rotterdam. Besides working as a painter there, he was also active – like his father, Pieter Verschuier – as a sculptor, making ships’ parts for the Rotterdam admiralty. None of his work in the latter category has been preserved. The painted oeuvre of Lieve Verschuier, which was only reconstructed a few years ago, consists of about 75 images. Besides marine paintings and river scenes, Verschuier also appears to have depicted some church interiors.
The painting described here turned up in 2000, when it was shown to the public for the first time at the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht. In spite of its modest size – it is one of Verschuier’s smaller works – there is a certain monumentality to this scene. We see a stormy sea in which a number of sailing-ships are afloat, two in the foreground and two more towards the horizon (the one at far right seems almost to merge with the waves). Only meticulous inspection reveals the presence of figures in the foremost vessel. The red cap worn by the helmsman of the boat in the right foreground and the bright green of algal growth near the boat constitute tiny colour accents in the otherwise highly monochrome scene, which is dominated by almost complete overcast skies. At first sight there is little action to be discerned in this scene, but Verschuier appears to have depicted the moment just before one of the ships sinks, judging by the savage churning sea and the narrow gap between the ships and the rock formation at left; the three-master on the left is almost taking in water. The low vantage point, whereby the sea is depicted as from a boat in the water, enhances the drama of the scene. Verschuier seems to have set out to involve the viewer in what is about to happen. He has added none of the spectators included by other marine painters of his day to enliven the image. Verschuier placed his signature prominently in the foreground, on a piece of driftwood floating in the middle of the scene, a detail not uncommon in seventeenth-century Dutch marine paintings.
Viewed in the wider context of Verschuier’s oeuvre, Ships in a gathering storm clearly adds a new element. The Rotterdam artist generally painted harbour views or scenes set near the mouth of a river – boat-filled images with calm water in which life goes by peacefully. Here, the sea presents a menacing appearance, and the boats occupy a relatively minor part of the image, which consists largely of clouds and sea. A similar compositional form can be found much earlier, for instance in the work of the marine painter Jan Porcellis, who died in 1632. Verschuier has painted the sea partly wet-in-wet, allowing the brown ground to shimmer through in some of the shaded sections of the waves. In such details, this painting exemplifies the technical mastery of this gifted artist. The rendering of the waves is convincing, and is characterised by a painterly approach. Verschuier attracted posthumous criticism for his sometimes exaggeratedly schematic and meticulous rendering of the sea. There is no sign here of an Italian or southern-looking light as in some of his more representative scenes. Perhaps this means that we are dealing here with an early work by Verschuier, possibly stemming from before the journey to Italy that he evidently made in 1653. Since we have almost no dated works to go by, however, establishing a chronology for Verschuier’s oeuvre remains a very difficult task.