Oil on panel
Composition: 11 5/16 x 15 3/8" (28.7 x 39.1 cm)
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Caird Fund

Experiens Sillemans. Men in a Boat Near Two Dutch Ships. 1652

Oil on panel. Composition: 11 5/16 x 15 3/8" (28.7 x 39.1 cm)
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.
Caird Fund Audio courtesy of Acoustiguide.

SARAH SUZUKI: The work of Dutch artist Experiens Sillemans straddles the line between printmaking, painting, and drawing. While his works look like paintings, some, including those that are on view here, used copper plates to transfer compositional elements onto the canvas—just like one would do in etching. But then Sillemans continued developing each image so it became a unique work of art. Ellen discussed Sillemans work with Friso Lammertse, curator at the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam.

FRISO LAMMERTSE: Sillemans tries to imitate engravings but around 1600 he says, well, I’m going to make drawings, but then he imitates the art of engraving, so it look almost like an engraving. The whole way he makes the pen with six lines, becomes thinner and so on, it really imitates a burin.

ELLEN GALLAGHER: They do use an offset transfer technique so there’s a drawing, and a preliminary drawing made, right?

FRISO LAMMERTSE: But this was chalk.

ELLEN GALLAGHER: And they’re essentially tracking that with the quill.

FRISO LAMMERTSE: Yeah, but, they did the hatching lines. They never touch each other. It’s incredible kind of technique.

ELLEN GALLAGHER: It’s really turning the hand into a machine.

So the Sillemans is interesting because you actually see the plate transfer. It doesn’t seem that he’s hiding that, or maybe the fact that it’s literally a copper plate, that it’s going to go through a press.

FRISO LAMMERTSE: What I think he did is make on paper …


FRISO LAMMERTSE: And cut it and then …

ELLEN GALLAGHER: Certainly. That’s why you get the sense of Photoshop.

FRISO LAMMERTSE: Yeah, exactly.

ELLEN GALLAGHER: That, captain who seems to be giving orders from the shores is repeated.

FRISO LAMMERTSE: And I think it’s the, the point that you must be very good to recognize it. For the connoisseur they did, the man in the, in the street, they went, “ah, that’s by pen, ah, wonderful.” He’s playing with it.

ELLEN GALLAGHER: Oh, that’s so interesting.

FRISO LAMMERTSE: And you wonder how many people did know it. Perhaps they were playing with a higher society already, who could enjoy this kind of what you can see and what you can’t see. Of course, the funny thing is that they are never the same so he always, at least as far as we know, there’s always a slight difference between them.

ELLEN GALLAGHER: So he wants you to know that there’s been an intervention, a mechanic intervention, almost …

FRISO LAMMERTSE: Or not, it’s the play, and of course, it’s what at stake at that moment or what is an original and what not. If you copy a painting, but if you change it a little bit it… could be viewed as an original. Everything is, at the end, an original again.

So one question I couldn’t solve is why pen painting was only used for marine things? Almost never anything else, and that’s also kind of tradition and then it becomes a kind of tradition and nobody thinks of doing it on another subject.

ELLEN GALLAGHER: For a contemporary artist this is so interesting. This sense of space and that these things disappear and come back and this idea of ghosts that in terms of technique, we don’t really know. It seems so inventive and contemporary.

FRISO LAMMERTSE: And the funny thing is it’s always an addition of several details. He never does just one …

ELLEN GALLAGHER: So you’re saying there’s not one full image.


ELLEN GALLAGHER: It is interesting.

FRISO LAMMERTSE: It is, yeah, and that you always have some change things and that he adds things and …

ELLEN GALLAGHER: But it’s never the idea of a total vision.

FRISO LAMMERTSE: No, because what you could say is I start with just the ordinary thing I have on my copper plate and then I go to make variations. But if you start with variations and small parts counter proofs, time and again, it’s funny, and sometimes it’s very confusing. But I think nobody else does it. He is pretty remarkable in the 17th Century.

The idea of imitating engravings on and changing things, it’s about art in one way. What can you do with art, what is imitating, how can you change things?

ELLEN GALLAGHER: I’m trying to understand, and maybe it’s a question you cannot really ever ask or understand completely from an artist is, why that technique? And, why is it so mechanic? Why is there so little brush work in some of them that are completely mechanic?

FRISO LAMMERTSE: Some print makers try to make a kind of paintings.

ELLEN GALLAGHER: Yes, yes, to elevate, in a sense.

FRISO LAMMERTSE: To elevate it and just like Sillemans, they are all on their own. They are special and they are trying to find ways to…

ELLEN GALLAGHER: To make prints into painting.

FRISO LAMMERTSE: And the other way around more or less …

ELLEN GALLAGHER: The other way around is really interesting, like why then …

FRISO LAMMERTSE: Make paintings look like engravings. That’s imitating is almost very high on their interest, that’s for sure.

ELLEN GALLAGHER: And was that, do you think, because of the distribution possibilities with engraving?


ELLEN GALLAGHER: In a sense printing is in the world, right?


ELLEN GALLAGHER: It’s of the world, which also makes sense with the, subject.

FRISO LAMMERTSE: In the starting of the 16th Century, they started this kind of idea if you want to be world famous, then you have to make engravings.

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