My favorite shipwreck painting, which I last saw at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, when it was travelling last summer, is back home at the Queen’s House, and my first order of business was to go pay the Amsterdam a visit. It’s hanging much lower in the gallery now, which means I could see some things I’d missed before.
Mainly what struck me was the large number of people in the image. I’d previously only thought about the man on the mast of the sharply-listing ship, but there are lots of other human bodies: a man praying in the upper left, another group on shore, some desperate figures aboard the sinking ship. I think there’s a more complicated social allegory here than I’d realized.
The ship is always an image of the state, and this “Amsterdam” is almost certainly the city-state itself, rather than any specific vessel. What is the painting saying about the life of the Netherlands in the late days of the Dutch Revolt against Spain?