Beneath a vast formation of creamy billowing clouds a heavily armed Dutch merchantman fires a salute. Alarmed by the sudden noise a bunch of seagulls fly up in all directions. The enormous vessel is dangerously close to the shore. Another three-master can be seen in the middle zone and a third is at anchor in the far distance. In the foreground are two transport vessels, probably kaags. The horizon is a coastline with a town. The faint silhouette of a plump tower can be made out.
Aernout Smit was an accomplished marine specialist who took his inspiration from Ludolf Bakhuizen and his teacher Jan Teunisz Blanckerhoff.[i] His paintings have often been mistaken for works by these artists. Smit indeed also copied works by, for instance Bakhuizen. In a notarial document of 1689 the artist declared that he had copied a view on the IJ on commission for a certain Hendrick Grel.[ii]
Aernout Smit was a prolific painter and his preserved output spans a wide range of marine subjects. He depicted seas as well as inland waters. His paintings show a great variety of shipping in different weather conditions. His stormy seas with sweeping clouds are spectacular. In his calms with their silvery tonality, of which our painting is a good example, Smit strikes a completely different mood. Smit only very rarely dated his paintings.[iii] The present evocative calm is therefore important in tracing the artist’s development.
Documentary evidence relating to Smit’s life is scarce. He was probably born in Amsterdam. In a notarial document of 1667 the artist lists his age as “about 26”, which puts his date of birth in 1640/41. The said document reveals that Smit was employed by the art dealer Laurens Cornelisz de Coninck, for whom he presumably painted. According to the eighteenth-century biographer of artists Arnold Houbraken, Smit studied with Jan Teunisz Blanckerhoff, who worked in Amsterdam between 1659 and 1666. In 1688 the artist is mentioned as a member in the Amsterdam painters’ guild records.
[i] For a discussion for Bakhuizen’s influence on Smit and an analysis of Smit’s style and motifs, see: G. de Beer, Ludolf Backhuysen: Sein Leben und Werk (1630 - 1708), Zwolle 2002, pp. 192-197.
[ii] See for this: J. Giltaij & J. Kelch (eds.), Lof der zeevaart. De Hollandse zeeschilders van de 17e eeuw, exh. cat. Rotterdam (Boijmans-Van Beuningen); Berlin (Gemäldegalerie im Bodemuseum) 1996-97, p. 383.
[iii] Another painting dated 1671, showing four merchantmen scattered across the scene, with smaller vessels, is in a private collection in The Netherlands. A photo and documentation is at the RKD, The Hague (box 596). A marine with shipping before a Mediterranean coast, strongly reminiscent of his teacher Blanckerhoff, in the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen (inv. nr. 667) is dated 1678. A late coastal view, dated 1697, was with the Douwes Gallery in 1972 (photo at RKD, The Hague, in box 594).