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Inspired by the Sea

An exhibit of 17th century maritime art dazzles on many levels.


It's safe to assume the Ventura County Maritime Museum is an institution with a mostly one-track mind, whose agenda is all about salty air and things nautical. There, we find model ships made with astonishing skill and paintings that celebrate the open sea and the vessels that brave it.

What may be much less obvious is this museum houses some of the finest fine art in the county. In its collection are numerous Old World paintings of note. And there is no better time for art lovers to pay a visit than now, thanks to the museum's current show, "Art of the Sea: 17th Century Dutch Masters and Their Legacy."

This selection of paintings, culled from the Nelson Maritime Arts Foundation and the London-based Richard Green Galleries, is, in its own quiet way, a dazzling show, appealing far beyond the subculture of maritime art.

The focus of the exhibition is on what is considered the auspicious beginning of marine art, as 17th century Dutch painters cast their gaze seaward. Holland, at the time, was enjoying prosperity largely from maritime trade, and art about the source of the nation's well-being was at once relevant and salable.

English painters followed suit, inspired by the "Dutch style" and produced their own strong body of maritime art. One intriguing curio in the show directly demonstrates such Dutch-English lineage. The British painter and collector John Christian Schetky (1778-1874) acquired the large 1673 painting "Royal Sovereign," by the well-known Dutch painter Willem Van de Velde (whose paintings here are the best-of-show). Van de Velde's canvas had been damaged, so Schetky added his own narrow vertical strip of a painting on the left of the original, to rather bizarre effect.

Schetky's own large canvas of 1841 has a title that conveys the pomp and circumstance of its subject, "Lord Anson's Arrival at Spithead With His Prizes After His Victorious Action Against the French Fleet off Cape Finistere on 3rd May 1747." These painters were not immune to the historical aspect of their work, needless to say.

Art history creeps into the mix, as well. We can detect a bit of the picaresque charms of another Dutch painter, Pieter Breughel, in the painting of humble fishermen coming home, in Adam Willaert's 1622 painting. This is one of the few examples here with an eye on activities both on land and sea.

The attention to detail and finely calibrated sense of mood are striking in many of these examples. They play up the romanticism of billowing sails, of ships venturing forth in trade, fishing and battle. The actual seas, painted with a care bordering on the obsessive, appear in varying conditions of storminess and placidity, and their condition tends to dictate the emotional temper of the paintings.

Van de Velde's "A Kaag and a Smalschip Under Sail" finds its nautical subjects in still, tranquil water and likewise the atmosphere of the painting. Julius Porcellis' "Shipping in Stormy Seas," meanwhile, ups the expressive ante and tension, cued by a turbulent sea.

The metaphor of storminess reflects well in battle scenes, as in Bonaventura Peeters' "A Naval Action," its canon smoke adding visual drama to the familiar elements of waves, sails and monumental ships.

Illustrating the ongoing fascination with this private niche of art, the 20th century artist John Bentham-Dinsdale shows a meticulous copy of Van de Velde's "The Visit of King Charles . . .," on which canon fire is ceremonial rather than warring.

There are subtle pleasures in this show, as well, including the small, finely realized paintings by Englishman George Webster, with ships in varying weather. Similarly, R. Cavalla's compact paintings show ships bathed in ethereal golden light, tilting precariously on rocky seas and under creamy skies. It's a dream world of the artist's creation, based on realities at hand.

The ships in these paintings tend to be viewed as majestic, odds-defying protagonists, feeding off of the power of nature, but also asserting man's will to conquer and collude. Besides that, the sheer art of painting is in full glory. The show is a mild-mannered blockbuster.


"Art of the Sea: 17th Century Dutch Masters and Their Legacy," through Jan. 31, 2001, at the Ventura County Maritime Museum, located at Fisherman's Wharf, Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard. Gallery hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m., daily; 984-6260.

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