Willem van de Velde the Younger. "The Dutch Fleet Assembling Before the Four Days' Battle of 11-14 June 1666," 1670. (Moveo Art Collection/National Gallery of Art)
Art and architecture critic

The title of the National Gallery of Art’s concise exhibition of Dutch maritime art keeps the focus on the liquid and atmospheric: “Water, Wind and Waves: Marine Paintings From the Dutch Golden Age.” It’s a summery concept, and based on a visit last week, it has gathered a summery crowd. With ship models and spectacular paintings of warships and trading vessels, some of them tempest-tossed, others floating safely in placid harbors, the show was full of families, with men in sandals and T-shirts clustered around the models eagerly parsing sails and rigging and other nautical arcana.

The show covers the major themes of maritime art: the technological celebration of the sailing ship, the perils of storms and rocky coast lines and the inevitable destruction of life and property, the contest between naval powers and important battles at sea, the beauty of the ocean and the coast line, and the social adaptations man has made to live in close communion with the watery part of the world. There are a handful of important and sometimes spectacular paintings, including large canvasses by the master of Dutch maritime painting Willem van de Velde the Younger, and Simon de Vlieger (with whom van de Velde studied), Ludolf Backhuysen and Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom, the first of the great Dutch maritime painters.

Ludolf Backhuysen. "Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast," 1667. (National Gallery of Art)

The Dutch relation to water is particularly complex and fascinating, with large parts of the country reclaimed from the sea, and all of it traversed, connected and delimited by lakes, bays, rivers and an extensive system of canals. Some of the most important battles in the Dutch war of independence from Spain were either fought at sea or involved water in some key way, including the breaking of the siege of Leiden, which the Dutch effected by flooding the surrounding land and relieving the city with a flotilla. The Dutch Golden Age was a result of wealth reaped from overseas trading, from colonial ventures and from incursions on Spanish and Portuguese maritime hegemony.

The darker side of this is acknowledged in a passing reference to “Dutch involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.” Is this sufficient? Contemplating that question offers a powerful lesson in institutional thinking, and how ideas of relevance and the lines that divide subjects and areas of scholarship can distort our sense of the history. In the exhibit’s brochure, the gallery says that while the Dutch were involved in the trade of human beings, “slave ships were rarely depicted in their marine imagery.” Which is why they are not explicitly present in this exhibition.

One might, of course, find other images that make the connection, and once you start looking, there are plenty of them. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, for example, has a medal given to a slave in Suriname who remained “obedient” during an 1837 uprising, and it includes an image of a three-masted sailing ship in the center of its design. Or, if one widens the circle a bit to include the long and brutal legacy of Dutch colonialism, in Indonesia and South Africa and the West Indies, then the possibilities for relevant iconography are even greater. There is, today, an ongoing debate about whether it is appropriate for the Dutch royal family to persist in using its sumptuous Golden Coach, which includes a racist and condescending “Homage From the Colonies” among the paintings emblazoned on its side. These may not be Golden Age art, but they show the powerful, lingering effects of the trading empire established during the Golden Age, with it pernicious collaboration between the Dutch state and the private, militarized companies that pursued its economic agenda overseas.

Willem van de Velde the Younger. "An English Ship Running onto a Rocky Coast in a Gale," c. 1690. (Kaufman American Foundation/National Gallery of Art)

The National Gallery isn’t likely to go there, especially if it means blowing up a neatly defined curatorial idea — Marine Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age — to include objects of little or no artistic importance, or drawn from outside the chronological parameters of the exhibition. Even so, it’s difficult to believe there aren’t relevant maps from the period, or harbor and fortification views, or illustrations from Dutch ethnographic accounts of Africa or Brazil or the East Indies that would help make these connections. Scholarship of all sorts, including what then passed for anthropology, was part of the Dutch colonial enterprise and led to a rich profusion of drawings, engravings, books and even paintings documenting the larger colonial project. Ships may not be the focus of this imagery, but they aren’t absent from it.

The neglect of any substantial evidence of the darker ramifications of Dutch overseas projects makes another curatorial move — a brief digression into “The Pleasures of Water,” including ice skating and summer bathing — feel almost egregious. There’s little need to stress the importance of water to the Dutch, or the many ways in which water is a recurring theme of Golden Age painting. It is ubiquitous in Dutch landscapes and cityscapes alike, and even some of the most intimate of Dutch interior scenes make reference to water, through maps on the walls to luxury items that were procured by overseas trade.

Willem van de Velde the Younger. "Before the Storm," c. 1700. (National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection)

What audiences really need is some gentle prod to consider how the works on view tug at the heartstrings of whiteness. Marine paintings are particularly bound up with fantasies of power and dominance that are fundamental to the European and Western sense of self. The wooden sailing ship on a stormy sea heroicizes the idea of empire, stressing the virtues of courage and daring over the facts of raw power and exploitation; it elides ideas of discovery and exploration with conquest and exploitation; and it celebrates the origins of the ongoing globalist project to unite all people under one common yoke of monopoly capitalism. The ship was also a powerful metaphor for ideals of good governance, and the wise, humane ship’s captain remains a staple of science-fiction fantasies of leadership and benign authority.

Images of ships became a staple of boardrooms and men’s clubs for good reason, because they massaged the dream of white male power in satisfying ways. Nautical paintings were powerful vessels for propaganda and communal self-aggrandizement, often commissioned by military leaders involved in particular battles to glorify themselves, the state and the state-supported trading companies they served. And even the frame on a maritime painting had a specific purpose. The edges of a landscape painting suggest that one might step into the scene. The edge of a seascape by van de Velde suggests that if the frame fell away, the spectator would be part of the deluge. This cinematic device is elemental to the painting’s power and its fundamental message: You are part of this. The “you,” of course, is the community that owed its livelihood and its riches, its luxury, its independence and its sense of self to the sea and everything it made possible.

The National Gallery isn’t a history museum, it certainly isn’t a nautical museum, and thank goodness, it isn’t in the business of doing history light, like PBS and the BBC. Its focus is on the visual and the history of the evolution of visual forms. But the advance in popular understanding of the larger impact of the slave trade and colonialism makes this exhibition seem dated. You can’t understand a Dutch still life without the reference to this history any more than you can understand our own parlous moment of global instability and inequality without acknowledging how much Western prosperity was based on plunder, despoliation and enslavement. These facts are not a footnote to the Dutch Golden Age.

Water, Wind, and Waves: Marine Paintings From the Dutch Golden Age is on view at the National Gallery of Art through Nov. 25.