Coastal scenes with calm seas or light breezes in sunny circumstances are the most characteristic works in the oeuvre of Willem van de Velde the Younger (Leiden 1633-London 1707), undoubtedly the most talented marine painter of his time. This canvas is an excellent example, and G.F Waagen’s remark, when he described the painting in 1857 is fully applicable: ‘Warm and clear in tone, and of masterly treatment’.1
Although this type of painting is generally referred to as a calm, this scene is in fact a very vivid scene, carefully directed by the artist. The backdrop is a wide coastal water, at low tide. As a result, some vessels lie on dry sand. The sky is partly clouded, sunshine comes from the left, a light breeze gently stirs the sails. Just like on a stage, the action takes place on various levels. The main show is in the centre: an English galliot, a cargo ship seen on the port side, mainsail and topsail set. Immediately behind it, partly hidden by the galliot, lie two other coastal cargo ships, a hoy (similar to a galliot, but without the topsail) and another vessel, probably also a galliot, of which only part of the bow is visible. A muddy beach and two men in a boat, handling a line connected to an anchor, occupy the foreground. They give more depth to the scene and their action creates a diagonal line from the anchor to the top of the galliot. Farther away, the third plan is occupied by, from left to right, a royal yacht firing a salute, a ship’s barge on her port side pulling away and a fishing pink on a spit of land. The way in which the yacht is depicted is reminiscent of the facility that is so characteristic of Van de Velde's drawings. This also applies to the two ships in the distance, on the far left. The coastline on the horizon is slightly elevated on the far right. In addition to the different types of ships, the scene is given extra liveliness by all kinds of human activities, such as the figures in the boat in the foreground, one of which is wearing a bright red jacket, and the men busy aboard the galliot in the middle.
There are hardly any indications as to the exact place Van de Velde had in mind here. A wide estuary like this could be found in many places on the English coast. The low hill on the right offers insufficient evidence for determining the topographical situation. But Van de Velde was probably not concerned with the recording of a specific location, but with the ships on the wide, flat surface of the water and the way the scene is lighted by the sun.
Van de Velde’s calms
Coastal views with various small vessels form the lion's share of Van de Velde’s total oeuvre. It was a type of marine in which he excelled, although he also painted numerous impressive stormy sea pieces. The painting discussed here fits into a long series, each time with different, usually small vessels on an almost ripple-free water. More than his father, who sailed the seas of Northern Europe with the Dutch war fleet, the younger Van de Velde immersed himself in ships visible from the shore, smaller in size than warships, with slack-hanging sails, on which the sunlight reflected. This type of marine was not entirely new. Van de Veldes' teacher Simon de Vlieger (1601-1653) was famous for his beach scenes, and Jan van de Cappelle (1624-1679) masterfully recorded the bustle of inland vessels in a harbour. Willem van de Velde, in his turn, brought more colour and space into his coastal views, and there is more blue in his high skies. In many paintings the soft light of the sun produces a subtle play of light and shadow on the pleated and patched sails of his vessels. The usual view is that especially in the Dutch period of the Van de Veldes there was a great demand for such calms, with a staffage of everyday vessels, such as the kaag and the wijdschip. Most of these paintings were probably not made for a specific client, but were delivered from stock to visitors of the studio.
A calm from Van de Velde's Dutch period: A kaag and other vessels off a coast near Den Helder, c. 1655, oil on panel, 40.6x52 cm. Kassel Gemäldergalerie Alte Meister.
In the period after 1672, when the Van de Velde studio had moved to England, the taste of English customers prevailed. They had a preference for more spectacular scenes, ships in need in stormy weather. That may be true in general, but there were plenty of exceptions, again according to the wishes of some customers. This painting and other similar works from after 1672 show that among the art buyers in England there were indeed people who preferred paintings of simple vessels on quiet coastal waters. In order to please his new clientele, Van de Velde replaced the Dutch inland navigation vessels with similar English vessels, the typical English galliots we see in this painting. And although the landscape does not have many details, one can well imagine that it is the Thames estuary at low tide that we see here. His signature also betrays that this painting originates from Van de Velde’s English period. It is signed on a plank in the lower right corner: W. V. Velde J. From around 1680 Willem van de Velde started to sign his paintings with ‘W V Velde J’ or variants, adding the ‘J’(Jonge), showing that he now regarded himself as an artist with his own personality who had outgrown the old studio trade name of ‘WVVelde’, which had been in use for 30 years, for products of both Van de Veldes.2 This corresponds to the date Michael S. Robinson suggested for this painting: c. 1685.3 There is no doubt that this is a generic seascape and not a specific ship or event (such as a launch or the departure of the fleet). The owners or masters of the ships in the foreground did not belong to the class that had their own ship depicted in a ship’s portrait. The first owner must have bought the painting from the studio stock, and apparently there was more interest in this image. This can be deduced from the many other versions of this painting. Another, almost identical version of this painting was in the collection of D. Katz in Dieren, in 1937. According to Michael S., Robinson it was painted ‘perhaps by the Van de Velde studio, with little help from the master’. According to Michael S. Robinson it was painted ‘perhaps by the Van de Velde studio, with little help from the master’. Horst Gerson noted that the maker was ‘perhaps an English follower’. In addition, there are several copies with small variations, either made by the studio or by early eighteenth-century maritime artists, such as Peter Monamy and Charles Brooking.4 These copies and imitations indicate that the appreciation for such paintings was mainly due to the way in which a maritime landscape is depicted, regardless of the exact identity of the ships depicted. Of all these versions, the painting described here is the primal version, superior in quality compared to the variants. The signature in the lower right-hand corner proves that Willem van de Velde also saw it this way.
Willem van de Velde the Younger, marine painter The two Willem van de Veldes, father and son, came from a family of inland bargemen in Leiden. One year after the son’s birth, in 1634, they moved to Amsterdam, in those days the most important port of Europe and a centre of the arts, including maritime print making and painting. Van de Velde the Elder (1611-1693), a talented self-taught draughtsman, created a niche for himself by making socalled pen paintings, time consuming works, mainly sold to a wealthy clientele. The training of his son consisted of drawing lessons at home and a training period (1650-1653) in the studio of Simon de Vlieger (1601-1653) in Weesp, near Amsterdam. Around the middle of the 1650s father and son worked together in their studio in Amsterdam, producing pen paintings and oil paintings. The drawings made at sea by the Elder, served as documentation for both artists. The year 1672 was a turning point in the careers of both Van de Veldes. In that year, known in the Netherlands as the 'Disaster Year', the Dutch Republic was in danger of being wiped off the map by a simultaneous attack from the seaside, by the English and the French, and from the landside, by a French army and by some German princes. While Louis XIV’s army was less than twenty miles from Amsterdam, the Dutch had something else on their minds than buying paintings. Some, such as Johannes Vermeer, went bankrupt, others opted for emigration. Both Van de Veldes gratefully accepted an invitation from Charles II of England, even though their homeland was at war with that king. But the regular ferry to Harwich continued as usual. In those days, war was not yet an allencompassing situation. The king offered the Van de Veldes not only an annual pension and numerous commissions, but also a studio in the Queen's House, in Greenwich. They lived there until the beginning of the 1690s, when they moved to Westminster. Charles II had died in the meantime, his brother and successor James II was chased away by his Dutch son-in law William of Orange. No royal support was to be expected from him, but in the meantime the studio was so successful that that royal protection was no longer necessary. By moving to England, Willem van de Velde had established his name as the greatest marine painter of his time. He became the main inspiration for the English maritime painting school of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many English marine painters, from Charles Brooking to William Turner, owed a debt to this Dutch artist.
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1 G.F. Waagen, Galleries and Cabinets of Art, 1857, p. 330.
2 Remmelt Daalder, Van de Velde & Son. Marine Painters (Leiden 2016), p. 74, 175.
3 Michael S. Robinson, A Catalogue of the Paintings of the Elder and Younger Willem van de Velde, 2 vols, London 1990, vol. II, pp. 702-3, no. 457 (1), 702.
4 Robinson, Van de Velde Paintings: no. 457 (p. 703 perhaps by the Van de Velde studio, with little help from the master), no. 458 (p. 703), nr. 659 (p. 699, perhaps a copy by Peter Monamy), nr. 460 (p. 707, perhaps a copy by Charles Brooking), nr. 461-1 (p. 700, probably a studio copy), no. 461-2 (p. 700).