originally published November 23, 2012
The scene: Aboard the deck of the Dutch flagship, the Lowestoft. It is 1666, May 31, the evening before the start of the Four Days Battle between the English and the Dutch. The characters are four notable Dutch painters: Willem van de Velde the Elder, his son (Willem van de Velde the Younger), Ludolf Bakhuysen, Pieter Cornelisz van Soest. Also, Admiral Michiel de Ruyter.
“Well? Be honest, Papa. What do you think?”
Willem the Younger looked eagerly at his father, who had been sitting silently against the ship’s mast, inhaling liberally from a small bottle of brown ink. The ink’s odor was nothing short of putrid, but Willem the Elder could swear the effects of breathing it in gave him more confidence, and helped the wenches – especially those from Dunkirk – appear much more attractive. There were no wenches aboard the Lowestoft of course, so chances are Willem the Elder would have to “heave the ballast” in a couple hours, when he would be alone in his bunk. That’s alright; God would forgive.
Willem the Younger’s sketch, which he was eagerly offering for his father’s appraisal, was not his finest.
“My son, this is shit,” the Elder declared. Noting the falling crests of his son’s eyes, he mercifully added, “But you are improving.”
“I will never be able to capture the noble fleet as well as you, Papa,” Willem the Younger muttered humbly. His father was prepared to offer up another morsel of encouragement, when Ludolf Bakhuysen and Pieter Cornelisz van Soest stormed across the deck, out of the darkness.
“Willem!” Ludolf barked.
“What?” both Willems responded in unison.
“Not you, Junior. I’m talking to the old man.”
“He goes by ‘the Younger’, not ‘Junior’, Ludolf,” Willem the Elder said calmly, tucking away his sweet, sweet happy-ink and withdrawing his pipe from his coat pocket. “We are not commoners, you know.”
“No, no, no,” Ludolf scoffed. “You are damn near royalty. I’ve heard.”
“Is it true that the Dutch Fleet is naming you as its official artist?” Pieter piped up.
“Nothing has been officially announced,” Willem the Elder tried to conceal an unavoidable grin. “But I’m expecting to hear something when I return to Amsterdam. Why?”
“Why you?” Ludolf’s rage did not abate. “My sketches of the fleet are far superior, and my hair has been spoken of by the nobles as lustrous and vivacious.”
“Your focus is on the sea,” the Elder retorted. “You know what the sea is? It’s freaking water, Ludolf. Water. The glory is in the capturing of the boats. The official artist of the fleet should spend less time studying tides and weather patterns and more time glorifying the damn boats.”
“My artwork comes alive off the canvas,” Ludolf sneered. “I employ the full spectrum of color to bring life to my work. Your drawings are brown with a hint of blue. It’s the mid-60’s, Will. Come on!”
“Back off, Mr. Ludolf. My papa doesn’t have to listen to your badgering,” Willem the Younger intervened, bringing a twinge of pride to his father as he lit his pipe.
“Don’t even talk to me, Young Willem. You aren’t even in our league.”
“Lay off my son, Ludolf. I mean it.”
“His clouds look like penises. Seriously! What’s wrong with him?”
“What about me?” Pieter cut in. “My work may not be as well known, nor my hair as full-volumed and rich as Ludolf’s, but dammit, I nailed the Von Kooshner back in Amsterdam. I sold that painting to a Spanish nobleman, and the Spanish usually hate our stuff.”
“The hull was too shiny,” Willem the Elder declared, looking out over the black opaque sea.
“He’s right,” Ludolf nodded. “Too shiny. It didn’t look real.”
“I ate for six months off that painting,” Pieter grumbled.
“Sure,” Willem the Elder said, “and that’s great. So the Spanish seem to like your style, which is all the more reason you’ll never be the official artist of the Dutch fleet. Fuck the Spanish.”
“I still don’t believe your work is the finest among us, Elder Willem,” Ludolf said. “If this battle truly does begin tomorrow, I can guarantee that my work will be far superior.”
“Hold on a moment, Ludolf,” Willem the Elder said. He called over to Admiral de Ruyter, who was making his way toward the stern. “Admiral! Please come join us.”
De Ruyter turned toward them, and, after plucking the tips of his mustache to ensure they remained at a fine, attentive point, he marched regally in the direction of the gathered artists.
“My friends!” de Ruyter exclaimed loudly, as though his words were being documented for direct recitation in his eulogy. “This is to be a festive evening, for the glory of battle awaits!”
Ludolf rolled his eyes and Pieter appeared to turn slightly green around his cheeks.
“Admiral,” Willem the Elder began, “We were discussing the morrow’s battle, and we felt it would enrich the historical commemoration if one of us could be rowed among the fleet, perhaps in a galley, to capture the fleet in full preparedness.”
“Aye, how the blood surges in chutes of fiery determination on the eve of greatness,” Admiral de Ruyter pronounced. “The crimson sun lowers itself into the onyx folds of the endless deep, foretelling the English blood that will spill unto her brine in the – ”
“No seriously, Admiral,” Willem the Elder cut in. “We just want to know if we can borrow a galley and crew to do some sketches. No one is documenting your words for posterity.” As if understanding his cue, Willem the Younger stopped writing and quietly slipped his quill and sketchbook out of sight.
“Oh, sure,” de Ruyter said. “I get you. Okay, the Vreesen is just off-starboard, which one of you wants to go?”
“We would like you to choose,” Ludolf replied, nodding toward Willem the Elder.
“Me?” Admiral de Ruyter was underwhelmed. “Why?”
“You are wise and well-spoken,” Willem the Younger said. “Your thoughts on who should best capture the magnificence of…” his father was waving for him to shut his mouth.
“Why not?” Willem the Elder offered.
“Okay,” de Ruyter looked over each of the artists carefully. “Pieter, the ships you render are appealing to the eye, but they fail to capture the scars of the sea. They may be good enough for Spanish walls, but they simply fail to move me. Ludolf, I admire your craft, however for truly nailing the rugged reality of battle, or even a fleet that’s prepared for a bloody fight, your work just doesn’t cut it. Too many colors. I’m sorry, Ludolf, but you make the fleet look… pretty.”
“What about me?” Willem the Younger said.
“Your clouds look like dicks,” de Ruyter replied. “Seriously, what is up with your clouds?”
“This is an outrage,” Ludolf declared. “You will all see, the art I create of this battle will become the definitive document!” With that he stormed away from the others, Pieter scurrying off in pursuit.
“I shall contact the captain of the Vreesen,” de Ruyter said to Willem the Elder. “Be prepared to board in twenty minutes.”
Willem the Elder nodded, handed a small piece of rolled-up parchment to the Admiral, then sent him away with a wave and a salute. Once he had gone, Willem the Elder dumped out the remains of his pipe and turned to his son, who was looking blankly up at the gathering clouds.
“Do not despair, my son,” Willem the Elder said. “Your work is progressing, and I’m confident your drawings during this battle will display that.”
“Papa,” his son said, not looking away from the clouds.
“What did you hand to the Admiral before he left? Have you already been sketching the fleet’s movements since Dunkirk?”
“Ummmm, no. Those were sketches of something else.” The Elder made to depart his son.
“Sketches of what?”
“Prostitutes, mostly. A red-headed wench in particular. One I know the Admiral is fond of.”
“But why? I don’t understand.”
“Most of the time, my son, a man’s talent will propel him to the top of his profession. It will earn him respect, riches, and titles such as ‘Official Painter of the Fleet.’ Sometimes, you’ve got to churn out some porn to help move things along. Now quit looking at those clouds and fetch my sketchbook.”
Willem the Elder adjusted his coat and allowed himself one more sniff from the ink bottle. This was to be a glorious battle indeed.