Sea Battle

An artist's depiction of the USS Constitution vs. HMS Guerriere
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Maarten Platje has frozen a moment in America’s maritime history in his dramatic work “Opening Shots, USS Constitution vs. HMS Guerriere.” It shows the War of 1812 sea battle in the open Atlantic that put the young United States on the world map and that gave the American frigate Constitution her nickname, Old Ironsides. “It’s the early stage of the battle,” Platje says, “just before the ships were close enough to exchange broadsides.”

Guerriere, in the foreground, flies the British flag, which streams out in the stiff breeze. Constitution has just fired her bow guns, with the splash of the shot visible between the ships. Less than an hour later, the once-proud, 36-gun Guerriere was a ruined hulk, battered into surrender by the innovative, heavily built 44-gun American vessel. Hopelessly crippled, the Guerriere was set afire and sunk, but not before a British cannonball bounced off Constitution’s oaken hull, causing a crewman to shout, “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!”

The British Navy’s reputation for invincibility was shattered, and the upstart U.S. Navy had proved its worth. “After the battle,” Platje says, “the American public became galvanized by the pride in defeating the vaunted Royal Navy in a fair fight.”

While the ships draw the viewer’s attention in the painting, the ocean setting is handled as dramatically as the event. There’s green water and whitecaps; dark, scudding clouds; and a play of sunlight on the sea. All are elements Platje knows from his days serving on the North Atlantic with the Dutch navy. “I wanted to paint the motions of the sea [and] the colors of the sky and water as I know,” he says. “I think this gives a strong image, a combination of the historic event and a realistic depiction of the atmosphere.”

In creating the work, the artist transforms himself into more than a painter. “This is how I become a storyteller,” Platje says. “Being a storyteller gives me the most pleasure.” 

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue.