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The paintings and other art-objects

The paintings in the cargo of the Vrouw Maria are connected to the determined art-collecting of Catherine the Great of Russia. Her collecting in turn was based not so much on love of art but on calculated political motives to raise Russia among the European enlightened nations.

Catherine knew that in order to rank as a major player in the international politics, her court and capital had to resemble and outdo her European rivals such as Fredrick the Great of Prussia. Large and noteworthy art collection was a must. Through extensive correspondence Catherine gathered a group of influential European intellectuals such as Voltaire, Dennis Diderot, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, François Tronchin and Étienne Falconet to arrange art-affairs and to promote her cause. With their help and her vast budget she was able to buy lots of paintings of great importance and whole collections from Europe and thus achieve "peaceful victories" over her rivals.

The paintings connected to the Vrouw Maria Catherine acquired in July 1771 in Amsterdam from the auction of the estate of timber-merchant and art-collector Gerrit Braamcamp. The auction was a big occasion in European art-scene, as the auctioned paintings collection was of highest quality and very well known. Thus Catherine had ordered her ambassador to The Hague, Prince Gallitzin, to commission local dealers to buy the best works on her account.

The Braamcamp-auction takes place in the most active period of Catherine's collecting, between the acquisitions of the Brühl collection in 1769 and the Crozat collection in 1772. These were huge deals, both of the whole collections of hundreds of paintings. The Braamcamp affair was different, because Catherine's agents had to compete with others in a public auction. 313 lots were sold, which of them were hammered to Catherine?

Many original auction-catalogues have preserved and some of them have annotations, which show that Catherine's agents managed to buy two of the most valuable paintings of the auction. The other is a triptych on panels by Gerard Dou, which was very well known and celebrated at the time. This is today known as the Braamcamp triptych or the "Lying-in chamber", a copy of which by Willem Joseph Laquy exists. The panels of the triptych are genre-paintings very typical for Dou and together they have been interpreted as forming an allegory of lifelong learning. On the other hand the subjects and details are so typical for Dou, that another interpretation is that the master simply painted his favorite subjects without allegorical meaning.

Willem Joseph Laquy, after Gerard Dou, 1748-1771. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The other painting sold to Catherine was a celebrated painting too, the "Large drove of oxen" by the much appreciated artist Paulus Potter, who is known for his portrait-like animal subjects. The third painting surely sold to Russia is an interior scene with a man descending spiral stairs by Isaac Koedijck, which another catalogue notes as lost at sea during the transport to Russia. This work too is known as a copy by Laquy. Otherwise the catalogues only give the price paid and the buyer, which in the case of Catherine would be local agents, so the catalogues studied so far do not directly name any more paintings as sold to Russia.

Willem Joseph Laquy, after Isaac Koedijck. Amsterdams Historisch Museum.

It has been quite a detective-work to trace paintings from the auction and to see what is missing. Dr Clara Bille has largely done this tremendous task in her 1961 doctoral thesis De tempel der kunst of het kabinet van den heer Braamcamp (J.H. De Bussy Amsterdam). From her work it can be gathered that in addition to the mentioned three paintings 8 others bought by the broker Adriaan Van den Bogaarde were in the Vrouw Maria. As the mentioned Dou and Potter, these too represent mostly the Dutch Golden Age, the 17th century. They are mostly so called genre paintings depicting everyday scenes in interiors or in landscapes and the masters are Jan van Goyen, Philips Wouwerman, Gabriel Metsu, Abraham Storck, Adriaen van Ostade and Adriaen van de Velde.

These make altogether 11 paintings, but it seems likely that there are more paintings in the Vrouw Maria. The diplomatic correspondence between Russian and Swedish authorities after the shipwrecking refers to values of lost paintings significantly higher than what would be the combined price of those 11 paintings. Clues of the lost paintings can be gathered also in the correspondence of Catherine and her European friends (Voltaire, Diderot, Falconet, Tronchin), but a complete list of paintings is not to be found there either. In every case it is clear that in addition to mentioned paintings several other paintings of the Braamcamp auction remain lost and many of them are most likely in the Vrouw Maria. Which ones they are is not totally sure. Written descriptions of the lost paintings can be found in the Braamcamp-catalogues and various other old catalogues. According to these the works were mostly very typical for the masters, so identifying these and making the distinction to other paintings is often difficult. But in addition to the paintings already mentioned, works for instance by Gerard ter Borgh, Melchior d'Hondecoeter, Willem Joseph Laquy, Johannes Lingelbach and Philips Wouwerman seem to remain lost.

It should be noted that not all the paintings in the Vrouw Maria were Catherine's. At least her ambassador to The Hague, Prince Gallitzin, the one who was responsible for arranging the Empresses purchases, was apparently buying for himself too. A list of objects salvaged from the sinking ship does mention 6 paintings belonging to Prince Gallitzin. Indeed there is one painting today in the Amsterdams Historisch Museum, which was sold in that auction and is known to have belonged to the Gallitzin family. This is a painting by Jan ten Compe depicting the Mint of Amsterdam. About other salvaged paintings there is no knowledge, nor about other paintings possibly bought by other Russian nobles.

Jan ten Compe: De Munttoren gezien van het Singel, 1751. Amsterdams Historisch Museum.

Then there is one painting in the Hermitage today, which is connected to the Vrouw Maria story. This is "Return of Jephtah's daughter" by Pierre Mignard, which is mentioned in the 1903 Hermitage catalogue by Somof as having been bought from the Braamcamp auction but transported in another vessel. Somof writes in the introduction that the buyer of this painting, J. Yver, was the one commissioned to buy for Catherine, but this clearly is not the whole truth as others bought the aforementioned paintings. It is somewhat unclear how this painting actually ended up in the Hermitage.

One wonders also about the possibility of other kinds of luxury items being in the hold of the Vrouw Maria. The preserved list of salvaged objects mentions items such ivory eggs and mirrors with gilt frames, and Braamcamp collection did include silverware, porcelain, lacquerware and other kinds of art-objects. However, there is no further knowledge if any of this material was bought to Russia or loaded to the Vrouw Maria.

Packing and preservation of the paintings

The packing method of the paintings of course greatly affects their preservation. Given the very high value of the paintings, it can be assumed that they were packed carefully. But exactly how this was done remains unclear, and generally knowledge of packing of valuable paintings in the 18th century is scarce.  We do not know whether they were rolled or packed with the frames, individually or several paintings together. There is some evidence that wooden chests padded with straw were used at that time and the paintings were placed in them with the frames. If this was the case, the paintings in the Vrouw Maria are now in a waterlogged state.

Other packing methods have been suggested, most notably sealed lead containers, in which the canvases would be rolled without the frames. This kind of packing would make a significant difference, because the paintings on canvas would be much more protected, possible even dry and thus well preserved.  But there are no archival sources to prove this, and it is to be noted that many of the paintings were panels, which of course could not be rolled. Although the theory of some kind of lead-packaging cannot be ruled out at present, it does not seem likely, as the diplomatic correspondence after the shipwrecking clearly refers to crates of paintings and discusses the possibilities of restoring wet paintings should they have been salvaged. Research about this continues, but the current assumption is that they are packed in wooden chests, which would mean that they have been in a waterlogged state since 1771. This would mean that the paintings are in a poor state of preservation and at least the paint layers have suffered badly. However, the wooden panels, especially if oak, might have been preserved relatively well in the prevailing conditions, but in this case too the paint-layers probably have detached due to the water-based base-layer commonly used on panels.

If the paintings have been in a waterlogged state since 1771, they are most likely not any more paintings in the sense that they could be conserved to be displayed on the wall of a museum as paintings. If they will be brought up and conserved, they would most likely be fragmentary and have different character as extremely interesting marine archaeological finds. As conservation challenges these extremely sensitive artifacts would be something quite unheard-of, so the conservation procedures all the way from lifting to display case should be very carefully planned.


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Last updated 30.10.2015
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