What audiences really need is some gentle prod to consider how the works on view tug at the heartstrings of whiteness. Marine paintings are particularly bound up with fantasies of power and dominance that are fundamental to the European and Western sense of self. The wooden sailing ship on a stormy sea heroicizes the idea of empire, stressing the virtues of courage and daring over the facts of raw power and exploitation; it elides ideas of discovery and exploration with conquest and exploitation; and it celebrates the origins of the ongoing globalist project to unite all people under one common yoke of monopoly capitalism. The ship was also a powerful metaphor for ideals of good governance, and the wise, humane ship’s captain remains a staple of science-fiction fantasies of leadership and benign authority. Images of ships became a staple of boardrooms and men’s clubs for good reason, because they massaged the dream of white male power in satisfying ways. Nautical paintings were powerful vessels for propaganda and communal self-aggrandizement, often commissioned by military leaders involved in particular battles to glorify themselves, the state and the state-supported trading companies they served. And even the frame on a maritime painting had a specific purpose. The edges of a landscape painting suggest that one might step into the scene. The edge of a seascape by Van de Velde suggests that if the frame fell away, the spectator would be part of the deluge. This cinematic device is elemental to the painting’s power and its fundamental message: You are part of this. The “you,” of course, is the community that owed its livelihood and its riches, its luxury, its independence and its sense of self to the sea and everything it made possible.
Philip Kennicott in NGA’s exhibit of Dutch marine art skates over issues of slavery and colonialism (Washingtonpost)