Fishermen on Shore Hauling in their Nets

At dusk, a heavy sky bears down onto the shallow coastal waters. Small patches of azure creep into the sky and large, murky clouds move ponderously across the horizon, following a diagonal from lower left to upper right. Human activity, encapsulated in the lowermost quarter of the composition, is secondary to the prevalence of the immense sky. On the left, five brawny figures standing in the shallows collectively haul in a circular-shaped net with one man wading in the water up to his knees. A mudflat is positioned on the left, with wooden piles sunk into it. In the central foreground two men are seated in a small boat, one attending to the oars while the other, his back to the viewer, holds a net cast out in the water. On the horizon, on the right, are the outlines and sails of a number of coastal craft and in the middle distance, on the right, a kaag is shown laden with passengers. A boat is being rowed towards it, from the left, with a man in the bows ready to pass a line. In the distance a larger boat with sails moves across the canvas to the right. The outline of a town is just discernible on the horizon, in the centre and far left, lit by sunlight. The artist has condensed the activity into the bottom quarter of the painting, and devoted the rest of it to a dramatic depiction of the sky. The painting is signed with the monogram 'IP' on a wooden pile in the foreground, in front of the small rowing boat.

The economic significance of fishing in the Netherlands during this period is not to be underestimated. Ludovico Guicciardini had described the sea ‘not only as a neighbour, but as a member of these Low Countries, as well for the great benefit that it bringeth to them . . .’ While other works of art explicitly reflect the rewards of fishing (BHC0774), Porcellis’ painting depicts the mundane reality of fishing and the commitment it demands. He presents uncomplicated, natural characters in the foreground. The association between fishermen and Christ’s disciples is all too obvious. Jesus encountered Simon and Andrew as they ‘cast a net into the sea; for they were fishers’ and subsequently made them into ‘fishers of men’. This tangible religious subtext within the painting reinforces the gravity of these figures.

Like his contemporary, Jan van Goyen (BHC0806), Julius Porcellis explored the depiction of lightning and related effects. For example the edges of clouds which, caught in low directional sunlight, are dramatically highlighted. As the sun sets, out of the picture plane to the left, its final beams pick out the edges of the cloud layers. It is the related effects of lightning that are evident in this painting. Heavy weather may threaten, here, but it may passover the scene of everyday fishing activity. During the 1630s and 1640s, the pursuit of realism in landscape painting, led artists such as van Goyen, Porcellis and de Vlieger to represent unsightly or bad weather, known as vuil weer, as a subject with equal validity to fine weather. An atmospheric idiosyncrasy such as lightning probably delighted Porcellis, who successfully added it to his visual vocabulary of realist images. Such representations of foul weather later came to be reviled. The late seventeenth century artist and theorist Gérard de Lairesse derided them as the schilderachtig onschoone: the ‘picturesque ugly’.

Very little is known about the life of Jan Porcellis’ son, Julius Porcellis. His exact date of birth remains unknown. However, since he was certainly an adult when Jan Porcellis wrote his will in 1631, Julius was probably born in or around 1610. By 1644, Julius lived in Rotterdam, where records testify to his ownership of property there. Ultimately, however, he returned to Leiden, where he was buried in the city’s Pancraskerk on 30 September 1654. Julius doubtless painted for some years under the aegis of his father and the similarities between their works are evident. In 1718, Arnold Houbraken declared that Jan Porcellis had a son, Julius, who ‘came so close to him in art that they are often confused, all the more because, like his father, he signed his works J.P.’

Object Details

ID: BHC0805
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - QH
Creator: Porcellis, Julius
Date made: 17th century; circa 1640
Exhibition: Turmoil and Tranquillity
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Palmer Collection. Acquired with the assistance of H.M. Treasury, the Caird Fund, the Art Fund, the Pilgrim Trust and the Society for Nautical Research Macpherson Fund.
Measurements: Frame: 632 mm x 778 mm x 75 mm;Overall: 10 kg;Painting: 393 mm x 546 mm
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