Depicting what was probably the most decisive moment of the Battle of Gibraltar, this remarkable painting by Dutch artist Cornelius Claesz van Wieringen, is also an extraordinary attempt to capture the gruesome realities of an explosion. Figures are shown flung through the air from the force of the blast, some severed in two — a torso here, a pair of legs there — and the choppy seas are strewn with blood and bodies.
For a long time the piece was mistakenly attributed to Hendrick Vroom, under whom Van Wrieringen studied. In 1621, the Admiralty of Amsterdam commissioned a painting from Vroom of the battle, which they planned to present to Prince Maurits, the commander-in-chief of the Dutch army. Not happy with the extortionate sum demanded by Vroom, they turned to his pupil Van Wrieringen. Before he was given the commission Van Wrieringen had to paint a trial piece to see if he was up for the job, and it is thought that this is most likely to be this work. The authorities apparently were not too put off by the gore, as they ordered a modello of the composition, which now lives in a private Dutch collection.
For more on the how artists have responded to the challenge of depicting explosions throughout the centuries, see Simon Werret’s essay for us “Picturing Pyrotechnics“.
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