‘Laet nu de Oudtheyt voorts swygen, wanneer die ons heeft willen wijs maken, dat geen Hercules selfs tegen twee kan bestaen, dewijl wy in onse dagen gesien hebben, dat de kleyne macht van onsen swacken staet, tegen twee de machtigste Koningen van Christenrijck, tot ons verderf t’saem vereenight, nu drie verscheyde malen na den anderen heeft konnen overwinnen.’
Thus reports an anonymous news print about the course of events during the Battle of Kijkduin on August 21, 1673. Such news prints, in which the distinction between fact and fiction is often extremely fragile, must have provided Pieter van Maes with material for the ordonnance (composition) of his painting.
Our knowledge of Van Maes’ oeuvre is limited; a village festival, a harbor view in the style of Van Minderhout and a single fish still life have survived, furthermore he took care of the figures in two landscapes by Gabriel Sonjé. Yet Van Maes must have been favored by contemporaries, for in 1698 the Rotterdam city chronicler Gerrit van Spaan mentions him among the living painters from the villages outside the city: ‘good masters, among whom Pieter and Gerrit Maes excel’.
After the Second Battle of the Schooneveld (June 14, 1673), De Ruyter waited for an opportune moment to put the State fleet to sea against “conjoined Royal Seafaring fleets. The admiral had been ordered by Stadholder William III to inflict damage on the allied fleet in order to prevent a returning silver fleet from falling into the hands of the English, who would then be financially enabled to perpetuate the battle. The winds remained unfavorable for a long time, so it was not until August 21 that the possibility of an encounter with the enemy presented itself. The latter had arranged itself in the shape of an ellipse, the attacker besieged him from a crescent. The maneuvers of the Allied fleet under the command of Prince Rupert, who dispersed his ships from the core, made that the relations turned out differently than De Ruyter had foreseen.
Thus it could happen that two archrivals came face to face. After all, Cornelis Tromp had inflicted a sensitive defeat on Edward Spragge, captain of the Blue Squadron, at the Battle of the Schooneveld. On that occasion, he had been full of scorn for the English knight. According to Tromp, Spragge would do better to appoint his wife as captain of the fleet, a reference to her descent from a Dunkirk privateer family. Spragge took this calling very highly and vowed before King Charles II to kill the Dutch lieutenant admiral. However, fate took a very different course.
While De Ruyter was fighting Rupert, Lieutenant Admiral Banckert soon succeeded in driving off the French squadron. This was in spite of the smaller number of ships, moreover smaller in size than the enemy, with which the Dutch fleet was equipped. The blue squadron under Spragge had already drifted considerably in a northeasterly direction when the battle broke out. In doing so, he ignored the express orders from higher up to stay near Prince Rupert’s squadron. At half past eight in the morning, it was Vice Admiral Sweers on the Oliphant who was the first to set sail against the enemy. Then the middle lines meet and the battle erupts in ferocity.
Print publisher Johannes Janssonius van Waesberge describes it as follows: ‘Van het esquader onder den Heer Tromp, met dat van de Blaeuwe Vlag, werd onuytsprekelijck en ongelooffelijck gevochten: men sou schier geseydt hebben, dat alle de Duyvels te gelijck uyt de Hel waren los gebroken, om aldaer hare algemeene schrickelijcke vergaderingh te houden’.
The tenacity with which Trump attacked the larger Royal Prince from the Gouden Leeuw earned him the nickname “Sea Lion. During the first three hours of this battle, in which both ships lay bow to bow uninterrupted, there were no casualties among the crew of the Golden Lion. With 100 pieces, the Royal Prince had 18 more guns than its attacker and almost double the number of men. Of the 800 crew of the English mastodon, half were killed and 300 wounded.
Because the masts of the Goude Leeuw were in danger of being knocked down, Tromp was forced to switch to the Komeetstar (68 pieces). From this ship he again attempts to capture the severely wounded Royal Prince. The fierce defense of fifteen to sixteen English ships prevents this attempt. Meanwhile, Spragge also switched to the St. George. During a second switch to the brand-new Royal Charles, a ship launched in March of the same year, Spragge’s sloop is hit by a cannon-ball. The admiral is wounded and drowns.
Van Maes depicts the moment Cornelis Tromp attempts to board the Royal Prince from the Komeetstar. Since no faithful representation of this ship was available to him, the painter depicted the transom in the likeness of the Royal Charles. The latter ship, not to be confused with its namesake of 1673, was captured by de Ruyter during the Voyage to Chatham (1667) and has since been anchored at Hellevoetsluis, where the painter may have seen it. Behind the Comet Star is an advisory yacht or galleon. On the Royal Prince, the spar of the main and foremast is shot through. Ten sloops away from the Royal Charles, Spragge’s sloop is hit by a bullet. The admiral spreads his arms to heaven in despair.
In the foreground, a reconnaissance frigate of the red squadron is sinking. This allows us to place the situation just before six in the evening. On the left in the back plan is depicted the retreat with the Zeelandia led by Daniel Elsevier. The Oliphant with Isaac Sweers, who comes to perish during the battle, is depicted on the back right of the transom. For Tromp, the battle culminates in victory in more ways than one; not only does he defeat his rival from the enemy camp, but two of his sleepers in his own ranks, namely Isaac Sweers and Vice Admiral Johan de Liefde, also find death. After returning to land, he will ensure that his part in the battle is widely publicized by propaganda.
Literature: Ronald Prud’homme van Reine, Schittering en schandaal. Biografie van Maerten en Cornelis Tromp, Amsterdam 2001; N. Schadee, Rotterdamse Meesters uit de Gouden Eeuw, Rotterdam 1994, p. 288; Frank Fox, Great Ships. The battlefield of King Charles II, Conway 1980; Gerard Brandt, Het leven en bedryf van den heere Michiel de Ruiter, Amsterdam 1687
PIETER VAN MAES AS MARINE PAINTER