1644 – Amsterdam – 1708
A Capriccio of a Mediterranean Harbouz
Oil on canvas 80 x 63.5 cm
Signed lower left on the flight of stairs: A. Storck
Datable c. 1678
Collection S. Burton-Jones, London, 1936 (according to an annotated mount at the Witt
Collection A. Gifford Scott, by whose executors sold at London (Sotheby’s), 22
February 1984, lot 50, for £ 48,000
Private collection, Europe, from whence sold at sale London (Sotheby’s), 5 December
2019, lot 141
C. Gully, ‘Abraham Storck’s Italian Paintings’, Antique Collector (September; 1989),
pp. 70-75, reproduced fig. 1
On the quay of a Mediterranean harbour, bustling with activity, sharply dressed cavaliers, ladies and merchants stroll between sweaty workers toiling with cargo. The focal point is a majestic fountain surmounted with the statue of a female figure facing the sea and holding a cornucopia. A Dutch merchantman has anchored close by. Another approaches. The scene is dwarfed by the towering clouds that fill the azure sky.
During the last three decades of the seventeenth century Abraham Storck was one of Amsterdam’s foremost cityscape and marine painters. He was the youngest son of the artist Jan Jansz Sturck, who also fathered two other painters, Johannes and Jacobus. Abraham was the most accomplished of the three brothers. Johannes, Abraham and Jacobus all drew and painted topographic views of locations in their hometown, a subject adopted from Jan and Abraham Beerstraten, with whose family they were on excellent terms and distantly related by marriage. Abraham and Jacobus Storck also portrayed foreign cities such as Bonn, Speyer and Worms in Germany, using drawings the latter had made during his visits there.
Abraham was a brilliant businessman and marketed his works in such a way that there was a steady demand for them, necessitating a small army of assistants, including his brothers, to help keeping up the production of versions and copies. In addition to views of Amsterdam, his sea battles enjoyed massive popularity, and later on, ceremonial parades of yachts and mock battles honouring Peter the Great during his visit to Amsterdam. Abraham also capitalized on the public’s insatiable hunger for Mediterranean harbour views of which this canvas is a superb example.
This subject was not new. The Fleming Paul Bril, who spent his productive career largely in Rome, played a seminal role in its invention during the 1590s and onwards. The indisputable master of the southern harbour view is Claude Gellée. Also working in Eternal City, he took over the torch from Bril. His dreamy views are revolutionary for their sophisticated atmospheric effects of sunrise and the setting sun, meticulously studied dal naturale. He furthermore preferred low viewpoints, giving the beholder the impression of being part of the scene and his uninterrupted views to a distant hazy horizon overwhelms the viewer. Invariably framed with classical or Renaissance buildings, the embankments in Claude’s harbours are cleverly fashioned as theatre stages so as to accommodate a range of anecdotal staffage. Claude’s innovations would fall on fertile ground with numerous of his colleagues in Rome, surprisingly almost exclusively Flemish and Dutch artists, such as Jan Both, Jan Baptist Weenix, Adam Pynacker and Johannes Lingelbach. When they returned home, bringing along large collections of drawings from life and fresh memories of the south they immediately set to work painting sun-drenched Italianate vedute that did in turn not fail to inspire a host of fellow artists to take up the theme, including Claes Berchem, Dirck Stoop and the Storcks.
Unlike Claude, these Dutch artists had a penchant for realistic and acutely observed details. They filled their jetties and quays with motifs from the rich stock of bambocciante imagery. Topographical accuracy was obviously not a prerequisite in most of these port scenes. As is the case here, these images are all about sparkling the viewer’s imagination with a zest of the exotic. Abraham’s harbour scenes are an inventive jumble of famous Italian buildings, monuments and other well-known motifs and fanciful settings. No doubt, this artful capriciousness was the very cause of Abraham’s success. His educated and partly widely travelled clients will have delighted in bringing home the references to real places.
Seeing our painting they would have been amused to recognize Amsterdam’s Old Townhall in the looming structure at the left with its typical arcade featuring pointed arches. With minimal alterations Storck refashioned it as an Italian Palazzo with balcony. Many ports have statues or monuments overlooking the sea, such as the Quattro Mori monument in Livorno which appears in several of Storck’s Mediterranean port scenes. The fountain in this painting is however probably imaginary. The female figure on top of it is Fortuna, the Roman goddess of good luck, and glancing seaward
she welcomes the merchant vessels coming from different corners of the globe.
The verisimilitude of the scene is enhanced by accuracy on other levels, for instance in the close attention paid to the rigging of the ships and other technical details, which will have been particularly appreciated by the seafaring part of Storck’s clientele. The Dutch Statenvlag flies from the stern and masts of the heavily armed merchantman with its provocative open gun ports, and there are at least two other Dutch ships discernible. The picture breathes the collective pride of the Dutch as a maritime superpower. Storckpainted this picture around 1678, as indicated by the dress of the fashionably dressed figures, for instance the strolling couple in the shadow of the gothic building in the left or the conversing gentlemen a bit farther away, and by this time the Dutch maritime hegemony was under serious threat from upcoming seaborne nations such as the British and French and waning.
Storck was enormously productive and exploited the Mediterranean subject matter not only in paintings but also in worked-out drawings, which were no doubt intended for sale as well. Storck often painted pairs of harbour views, just like Claude had done. The upright composition of our painting with its heavy accent on the left hand side and opened-up vista on the other almost screams for a pendant. It probably once had a companion piece. The quality of Storck’s paintings varies considerably, but this port view certainly ranks among Abraham’s finest. Works such as these herald the iconic capriccios of Caspar van Wittel, Canaletto and Francesco Guardi.