Experiens Sillemans

While visiting New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) this past Saturday, I stumbled on a piece of anachronism in the form of two early 17th-Century Dutch pen paintings (penschilderingen) authored by the Dutch draughtsman and engraver, Experiens Sillemans. The works’ appearance in the MOMA show, Printin’, caught my attention for two reasons: First, for the simple fact that these Dutch Golden Age nautical scenes feel out-of-place, tucked away in a rather dim vestibule to an otherwise modern and contemporary show. Second, for the reason that there was something strangely familiar about these unfamiliar works, the “Dutch Salt Diggers” or “Klipzoutwinning,” and “Men in a Boat near Two Dutch Ships.” Possibly, it was the doubled and displaced scene in the foreground of the two paintings, with the seated Rükenfigur peering through his spyglass at the ships in the harbor, the captain standing at the water’s edge, pointing vaguely out to sea, while an oarsman in a nearby canoe looks away at his swarthy companion swilling what is likely the last of their Dutch microbrew. [See below.]

Dutch Salt Diggers (Klipzoutwinning)

Dutch Salt Diggers (Klipzoutwinning)
Pen on panel
Amsterdam Museum

Men in a Boat near Two Dutch Ships

Men in a Boat near Two Dutch Ships
Oil on panel
National Maritime Museum, London

Or, possibly, it was something about the curator’s description of these two pieces that I found so uncanny, and which eventually arrested my attention. The wall text explained that penschilderingen was a 17th-Century Dutch technique pioneered by other prominent Dutch artists such as Wilhem van de Velde the Elder (1611-1683), and it continued:

Sillemans’ version of this process was remarkable for its inventive integration of aspects of painting, drawing, and printmaking. He applied a coarse red or brown ground to a wood panel, followed by a layer of lead white or oil primer, which he left to harden. He then transferred motifs and designs to the prepared panel (using his own technique of inked counter proofs, which he often reused multiple times), then drew the composition by hand with ink and a combination of quill pens and brushes. Known for his detailed portrayals of maritime life, Sillemans often focused on the unusual subject of salt collecting, depicting partly imaginary landscapes based on the scenery of the Cape Verde Islands in the mid-Atlantic, key Dutch salt resources at the time. (Emphasis mine.)

Where had I recently read about Dutch salt mining in the mid-Atlantic? Or 17th-Century nautical scenes captured by the penschilderingen technique? Why was I certain the swarthy sailor was drinking a Dutch microbrew? I had to go home and do a bit of research before it hit me, but it was stumbling on this next image by Sillemans that called it all back to mind.

Ships in a Breeze

“Ships in a Breeze”
Courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum

It must have been the title “Ships in a Breeze” that tipped me off. I was immediately reminded of the Chadwick Family Papers essay on my bookshelf, “Upset by the Big Wind,” which details the prestigious New York family’s collection of Shipwreck Memorials.  Of course, the “Big Wind” belongs to a much later moment in history—January 6, 1839, to be precise—when, according to the Chadwick editors and curators, Lytle Shaw and Jimbo Blachly, a “freakish hurricane… devastated ships in the Shannon Estuary” off the coast of Ireland.

As one thing leads to another, I soon realized it wasn’t the Shipwreck Memorials I was after, but rather, selections from the Chadwick’s Illustrated History. As Shaw and Blachly relate on their “Chadwick Family Papers” blog (http://thechadwickfamilypapers.blogspot.com), the Chadwicks were (and still are, through their last living descendents, Torrent Chadwick III, and Chadwick Dalton IV) an eminent British family with Dutch and American ties (the Dutch Chadwijk branch of the family were among the earliest émigrés to New Amsterdam) that played a “prominent trans-Atlantic role in colonial and early national affairs” between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Shaw and Blachly further report that, “As eminent connoisseurs, sea captains, naval engineers and amateur historians, the Chadwicks amassed one of the great collections of nautical figurines, genre paintings and difficult-to-attribute manuscripts in Western culture.” At the 2011 Winkleman Gallery exhibition, Furling the Spanker: Masterworks from the Chadwicks’ Nautical Collection, I found the image below, “Marine Nocturn #7” (Fog), which distinctly features the same ship from Sillemans’ “Ships in a Breeze,” only placed at a less dramatic angle, and with less penschilderingen embellishment. [See images below.]

Marine Nocturn #7 (Fog)

Marine Nocturn #7 (Fog)
ink and watercolor on paper
from the Chadwick’s Illustrated History

A side-by-side comparison:


Ships from “Marine Nocturn #7 (Fog)” and “Ships in a Breeze”

I now wonder whether the Chadwick’s Collection harbors a rare Experiens Sillemans painting. Listening to Printin’ curator Ellen Gallagher’s interview with Friso Lammertse, curator at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, I learned a few things about Sillemans’ work and the penschilderingen technique that seem to substantiate my theories. The interview, which can be accessed in full at MOMA, begins with Lammertse describing the compositional process of the works:

L: Sillemans tries to imitate engravings, but around 1600 he says, “Well, I’ve gotta make drawings,” but then he imitates the art of engraving, so it looks almost like an engraving. The whole way he makes the pen with six lines become thinner and then so on, is really imitative of engravings.

G: They do use an offset transfer technique, so there’s a drawing, a preliminary drawing made, right?

L: Yeah, but this is with chalk.

G: Yeah, with chalk, and then they’re essentially tracing that with the quill.

L: Yeah but they did the hatching lines. They never touch each other. It’s [an] incredible kind of technique.

G: It’s really turning the hand into a machine. So, the Sillemans is interesting because you actually see the plate transfer. It doesn’t seem that he’s hiding that, or— and maybe the fact that it’s literally a copper plate, that it’s going through a press—

L: Yes, but what I think he did is make on paper—

G: Yes.

L: And then cut it— and then it’s—

G: And then it’s, oh yeah, yes certainly that’s why that you get this sense of Photoshop.

L: Yeah, exactly.

[And a little further on…]

L: I couldn’t solve it, why pen painting was only used for marine themes, almost never anything else, and then it becomes a kind of tradition, and nobody thinks of doing it on another subject.

G: For a contemporary artist this is so interesting, this sense of space, and that these things disappear and come back, and again this idea of ghosts, in terms of technique that we don’t really know. It seems so inventive and contemporary.

L: Yeah, and the funny thing is that it’s always an addition of several details. He never does just one—

G: So, you’re saying there’s not one full image.

L: No.

G: It is interesting.

L: Yeah, that he always has to change things and that he adds things.

G: But it’s never the idea of a total vision.

L: No, of course, what you could say is “I start with just the ordinary thing I have on copper plate, then I go make variations,” but if you start with variations and small part counter proofs time and again, it’s funny that sometimes it’s very confusing. I think nobody else does it. He is pretty remarkable in the 17th century. The idea of imitating engravings or [knots?] and changing things. It’s about art, what can you do with art, what is imitating, how can you change things.

On the subject of copies and originals, I’d like to consider the next known Experiens Sillemans piece, “A Flute Ship and a Warship in a Port” alongside a work from the Chadwick’s Collection, “Early Morning Yawl Boat Brawl,” below.

Left: Experiens Sillemans, “A Flute Ship and a Warship in a Port,” pen, brown ink, and grey wash on paper, laid down on card, courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum
Right: From the Chadwick’s Collection, “Early Morning Yawl Boat Brawl,” ink on paper, courtesy of the Winkelman Gallery

On an initial appraisal, “Early Morning Yawl Boat Brawl” appears to be a simple print produced by common intaglio techniques. On closer inspection, however, particularly of the highly gestural lines in the yawls’ sails, one begins to suspect the Chadwick’s possess yet another master-penschilderingen work in their collection. (Compare the craft in the detail from Silleman’s “A Flute Ship,” below, to the the partially obscured “yawl” in the left middle ground of “Early Morning Yawl Boat Brawl,” above, noting the similarities in the design of their respective hulls. If indeed Sillemans authored both pictures, he seems to have used the same model of ship for both his “yawl” and his “flute ship.”)

Even more striking is the resemblance between the warship in the left rear ground of Sillemans’ “A Flute Ship and a Warship in a Port” and the flaming hull featured in the Chadwick’s “Tinder Box.” The redeployment of the warship in the latter composition brings the gravity of this historic Dutch salt mining disaster to its fullest expression. The hull of the warship, enveloped in flames, but with its ornate woodwork still visible through the fire, serves as the punctum to one of Sillemans’ most powerful compositions (At this point, we conjecture the latter composition is made by Sillemans himself, though it could, of course, be the work of a late imitator, or perhaps, a rival draughtsman who swiped Sillemans’ counter proofs?).

Left: Detail from Sillemans’ “A Flute Ship and a Warship in a Port,” pen, brown ink, and grey wash on paper, laid down on card, courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum
Right: From the Chadwick’s Collection, “Tinder Box,” ink and watercolor on paper, courtesy of the Winkelman Gallery

The truth is, of the connection between Experiens Sillemans and the Chadwick (or Chadwijk) family, we know very little. It would not surprise me in the least, however, if it were discovered that Sillemans and the Dutch Chadwicks were more intimately connected than I might have guessed. Knowing what little I do about the history of the family, I would even credit the conjecture that the penschilderingen works in the Chadwick’s Collection are elaborate forgeries executed by a member of the family. In support of which theory, I return to the seated figure in the canoe from Sillemans’ “Dutch Salt Diggers (Klipzoutwinning).” Without any indication from the painting itself, I knew the sailor to be drinking a Dutch microbrew because I had seen him elsewhere — at least, in a sense, in the Chadwicks’ “Golden-Age Microbrewery” model (below).

“The Golden-Age Microbrewery”

The most cursory comparison of the visages of these two inebriated Dutchmen should suffice to convince any reasonable person of their relation. Perhaps the 17th-Century Chadwijk depicted in the canoe was also a member of Sillemans’ studio? Or perhaps he was a studio model who somehow acquired a number of Sillemans’ works and passed them on to his heirs and inheritors? Without further surmise, we await report from Shaw and Blachly.


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