PROPERTY FROM THE ESTATE OF JOHN PIERPONT MORGAN, 2ND
This marvelous drawing breaks through the conventions of the traditional Dutch city view presenting a beautiful and idiosyncratic portrayal of Dunkirk. Dunkirk was one of the most important ports in the southern Netherlands during the later 16th and first half of the 17th century. Part of the Hapsburg Empire, it was ruled by Spain until 1658, when the Spanish were defeated by Anglo-French troops at the Battle of the Dunes
The city can be identified by the prominent square belfry at the right of the composition, which was once part of the church of St. Eloi. This was such a characteristic and important feature of the city that it was rebuilt, from old paintings and photographs, after the near total destruction of Dunkirk in World Wars I and II. Immediately to its right is the curved gable of a church, now destroyed. The woodcut in the Braun and Hogenberg atlas of 1575 shows a similar tower, though probably seen from a slightly more southerly direction. The drawing, like the woodcut, does not show the 'modern' fortifications, which were begun by the Spanish in 1640 and then enlarged at various stages later in the century, so we can assume it was made before that date.
The precise description of the architecture, with its fine vertical strokes, accented with minute dashes and dots, derives ultimately from the landscapes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. By the first quarter of the 17th century, the style had been so completely integrated into the works of both southern and northern Netherlandish artists, so that one sees traces of it to a greater or lesser degree in the works of various artists active in the first quarter of the century, including C. J. Visscher, Wieringen, Jan van de Velde and even, to a lesser extent, Goltzius. Considering another, someone later tradition, one might also think of the work of Wenceslaus Hollar. What is surprising here is the contrast between the carefully rendered architecture and the remarkable freedom in the depiction of the ships at the distant left. Taken on their own they would also suggest a date closer to 1640 than 1620.
Also surprising is the artist's viewpoint. Dunkirk is shown from the west, but the draftsman does not follow the conventions of the traditional city profile, which are usually very balanced, with the major architectural elements in the center of the composition. Instead, the center of the city and the weight of the architecture are clustered at the right. The viewer looks into the mouth of a fortified harbor, where warships carrying the Hapsburg and French flags are anchored. Further to the left, set behind a heavy rampart, is a tower also flying the Hapsburg flag. Then the scene becomes increasingly rural, with windmills, dunes, two fishermen on the strand and a small group of spectators on the ramparts. Far in the distance a line of ships stretches across what would be the outlet to the North Sea.
While it is impossible to identify the flags on these ships, the unusual perspective of the drawing, the presence of the French and Spanish fleets and the absence of the later fortifications all suggest that this might be a spectator’s view of the blockade of Dunkirk in 1639. The event was one of the most significant conflicts for the Dutch in the Thirty Years War. By 1638, Spain and its Austrian allies found themselves unable to move troops overland through Flanders to fight the rebellious Dutch. They decided instead to travel by water, which took them through Dunkirk. In February 1639, Admiral Maarten Tromp led the Dutch fleet in a blockade of the harbor, thus thwarting the Spanish and keeping their troops from reaching the Netherlands. This was a crucial turning point, and Tromp followed it up by engaging the Spanish again in October as they once again sought to gain Dunkirk. At first heavily outnumbered, he eventually drove the Spanish back toward the English coast, and after reinforcements came virtually destroyed their fleet in the Battle of the Downs on 21 October.
It would not have been unusual for the Dutch fleet to bring an artist with them to record the blockade, as is evidenced by Willem van de Velde’s many travels. Slightly earlier Cornelis Liefrinck traveled with Van de Velde’s father and the boy Willem to record the Leiden militia’s battle with the Spanish at Grave (see Robinson 1990, vol. I, p. ix, though he mistakes Jan Liefrinck for Cornelis). Also, the very reportorial nature of the work would affect the treatment of the drawing, both in the point of view and the handling. The perspective is slightly distorted because the artist appears to have taken a fixed position and then swiveled his head to encompass the entire panoramic scene. As for the handling, the line seems very distinctive, but we have been unable to put a name to the artist. It could well be that he is someone who normally works in a different style, but in order to meet the demands of the task – the clear and accurate recording of an important event – he has uncharacteristically modified his stroke. But whoever he is, we are the benefactors, for he has captured a moment of stillness, long ago, in a city virtually destroyed by later, still more brutal battles.
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