Jan Abrahamsz. Beerstraaten (Amsterdam 1622-1666)
Jan Abrahamsz. Beerstraaten (Amsterdam 1622-1666)

A view of a bay with rocks, possibly Smeerenburg

Jan Abrahamsz. Beerstraaten (Amsterdam 1622-1666)
A view of a bay with rocks, possibly Smeerenburg
signed 'J: Beer-Straaten.' (strengthened, lower right)
oil on canvas
127.5 x 166.6 cm.
Anonymous sale; K. von der Porten, Schloss Wittgenstein, Hannover, 25 September 1950, lot 119.
Anonymous sale, Bödiger, Bonn, 23 April 1983, lot 1395.
Private Collection.
with P. de Boer, Amsterdam, by 1997, where acquired in 2000 by the present owners.

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Kimberley Oldenburg
Kimberley Oldenburg

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Lot Essay

Between enormous, awe-inspiring cliffs, brick huts and wooden structures sit along the coastline off a bay. The extremely large scale of the landscape and the overcast sky make the primitive architecture, workmen and vessels on the water appear insignificant.

The ships fly Dutch flags and the Amsterdam painter Jan Beerstraten no doubt represented part of a Dutch overseas colony. By the 1650s, when Beerstraten painted this coastal view, the Dutch Republic conducted trade in many and remote corners of the world. Given the northern and isolated outlook of the landscape Dr. Thomas Fusenig suggests in a letter, dated 19 November 2009, to the present owners that the site could be Smeerenburg. Smeerenburg was one of the settlements on Amsterdam, a small island north of Spitsbergen bordering on the Arctic Ocean, which was used for whale fishery.

The Northern or Greenland Company, with offices in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Delft, Hoorn and Enkhuizen, facilitated the whaling industry. The hunting took place during the summer months, initially close to the shores. Here settlements, such as Smeerenburg, were constructed, where the whales were cut up and the whale-oil refined. The crude houses on the beach, which are too small to be inhabited, are probably blubber ovens used for cooking the whale oil.

Although whaling constituted an important commercial industry throughout the seventeenth century it only became a more frequently treated subject in painting during the last decades of the century. Paintings by Ludolf Backhuysen, Abraham van Salm, Wigerus Vitringa and Abraham Storck show the spectacle of whale hunting in pale wintery tonalities with ships in narrow waters amidst ice floes.

In Beerstraten's painting, which, given its quite large dimensions, must have been a commission, the sublime and savage landscape is the primary motif. Beerstraten not only very convincingly visualized the barren cliffs and rocks, which he never can have studied in real life, but also the decidedly un-Dutch fall of light on the water and menacing cloudscape. The artist beautifully captured the eccentric poetry of the extreme landscape.

A painting with a similar composition, but smaller in size, can be found in the Statens Museum, Copenhagen (inv. no. 44). The most notable difference being the cliffs on the left side, depicted in the present painting, but not in the Statens Museum work.

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