The Battle of Lepanto took place on 7 October 1571 in the Gulf of Patras, off western Greece, and was perhaps the most significant sea battle in European history. It was fought between the forces of the Ottoman Empire, under Uluç Ali Pasha and those of the Christian Holy League (a coalition between Venice, the Papacy, Spain, the Republic of Genoa, the Knights of Malta and others) under John of Austria, at a time of growing Ottoman expansion in the west. The victory at Lepanto was landmark in the history of western Christendom, for at one stroke it stemmed Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean and prevented their influence from spreading west. The battle lasted for 5 hours and involved more than 400 galleys, a dozen galleasses (covert galleys with artillery) and over 60,000 fighting men, an unprecedented array of forces for its time.
Eertvelt painted this famous battle on more than one occasion, but this is perhaps his finest depiction of the scene. The large scale, the immense quantity of ships and the intensity of this painting are unprecedented and reveal an impressive and daunting spectacle. Only one other painting by Eertvelt of this battle, that is now in the Museum voor Schonen Kunsten, Ghent, (inv. no. s-88), is of larger size, but this only shows a few ships and not the immense conflict itself. 1 A much smaller and probably earlier work on copper was sold, London, Christie's, 6 July 2007, lot 137. The relatively late date of 1640 of the present painting bears witness to the continuing demand for depictions of this famous battle almost 70 years after the event itself. Eertvelt's depiction is accordingly probably based upon tradition and description, perhaps gleaned during his own stay in Italy, and was never intended to be historically accurate. The artist has, for example, included ships flying Dutch flags, although the Dutch took no part in the battle in 1571. In detail and effect, Eertvelt has however spared no effort, representing all the minutiae of the battle with the greatest precision. Characteristic for Eertvelt is the way he constructs his boats with sharp and spidery highlights, against a dark sea, but also the way he depicts his detailed figures with just tiny touches of white as they teem about the crowded decks of the ships.
Born in Antwerp, Eertvelt was one of the pioneers of Flemish marine painting in the early 17th Century. In 1609, at the age of 19, he became Master of the Antwerp Painters Guild and was influenced by Pieter Brueghel the Elder and the early works of the Dutch marine painter Hendrick Vroom (1566-1640), particular by the latter's palette. He travelled to Genoa in 1627, when he was 37, but returned to Antwerp by 1630. Although he remained a painter of marines, after his return from Italy, his paintings became more colourful, calmer and more focused on Southern views.
1. Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent, inv. no. s-88, on canvas, 176 x 315 cm., signed and dated 1623.
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