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Ships and a Galley Wrecked on a Rocky Coast RMG BHC0842

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Ships and a Galley Wrecked on a Rocky Coast RMG BHC0842

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Ships and a Galley Wrecked on a Rocky Coast
Two ships are tossed against a rugged cliff face. While a third is forcibly spurred towards the cliffs by an overwhelmingly strong breeze that blows across the picture from left to right. The rocks, on the right, appear rigid and uninviting as they loom high above the sea. This composition, which is rendered meticulously and very highly finished, is brightly lit at its core. This emphasizes the fate of the small brown galley, overset and driven towards the rock face before it. Equally dazzling are the white crests of the waves beating against the cliffs, in the background, and behind the curious arch-shaped rock formation on the right. Figures are depicted in a small rowing boat, attempting to escape from their broken vessel. One has successfully clambered onto a rocky ledge in the water. In the foreground, detritus floats among the waves, a poignant reminder of a recently sunk ship.
While the two central vessels are entangled in wreckage, the ship on the far left, although dangerously close to the cliffs, is upright and may still avoid the fate of the others. Significantly, this one flies three prominent Dutch flags, in contrast to the ragged English flag flying from the mast of the faltering ship in the middle. On its stern is a ‘Roode Leeuw’ or ‘Red Lion’, the emblem of Holland and the Dutch civic corporations. The location of this highly charged scene is unknown. Neither the nationalities of the vessels nor the soaring pale cliffs, on the right, which bear little resemblance to any typically Northern European landscape, help us to identify the scene. The terrain is most probably a fanciful Mediterranean landscape. Peeters, like many of his Flemish contemporaries, eschewed historical accuracy in favour of commotion, spectacle and high colour.
Like many similar storm and shipwreck scenes by seventeenth century Dutch artists, this painting has an underlying moral message which picks up on ideas of the ‘ship of state’ or the ship as symbolizing the passage of life. As in Bellevois’ depiction of ships in a storm hurtling towards rugged cliffs (BHC0837), a sturdy castle is built at the top of the cliffs, far away from the immediate peril. The castle and the buildings which flank it, surrounded by blue skies and flourishing greenery, appear idyllic. This is no coincidence: the symbolic value of the castle relies on an absolute contrast with the sea. The marked distinction between the tranquillity of the cliff top and the frenzy of the sea could scarcely be more pronounced. While the jagged rocks emerging from the water are symbolic of the ships’ annihilation, they are also positive symbols. The rocks are firm and enduring against the assault of the water that devastates the ships. The castle, strong, fortified and built high up on the rocks, represents protection and the hope placed in God. In the foreground bales and casks float away, perhaps reminders of the transience of worldly goods.
The artist, Jan Peeters, was born in Antwerp in 1624, the younger brother of Bonaventura Peeters the Elder and Gillis Peeters. Most of his career was spent in Antwerp, where he specialized in dramatic marine and naval paintings, characterized by puffy, multi-layered clouds. He, also, established a reputation as a draughtsman, producing drawings for engravers, and worked as an art dealer. Peeters became a Master of the Antwerp Guild in 1654 and married the following year. He died in Antwerp in 1678.

Ships and a Galley Wrecked on a Rocky Coast

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1678
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Art UK
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public domain

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