Jan van Goyen, who spent much of his career living and working in The Hague, was one of the most prolific and influential of the Dutch seventeenth-century landscape artists, producing more than 1200 paintings and 800 drawings over the course of his life. He was one of the principal exponents of a specifically Dutch style of landscape painting that took hold in the middle of the century, one which emphasized natural colors and native subject matter. In the present painting, a group of workers are applying pitch to the hull of a small sailing vessel banked on a sandbar during low tide. The small flicker of orange at left indicates the fire heating the pitch, releasing a thin trail of grey smoke that meshes with the clouds above. One hunched figure stirs the pitch in a cauldron over the fire, while a second applies it to the seams along the hull of the boat.
The present work is dated 1653, which would place it immediately after Van Goyen's brief experiment in the years 1650-2 with rigorously tonal compositions in shades of brown, painted on paper as well as panel. The more varied range of tones in the present work, as well as the treatment of the figures and boats, has much in common with Van Goyen's style of the late 1640s; however, the dynamic brushwork in the sky is typical of the paintings executed between 1652 and the artist's death in 1656. The freely-painted clouds are as much his subject as the shore scene below, and although the water remains calm, the darker clouds gathering at right suggest the uneasy quiet before an impending storm.