Willem van de Velde the Younger
Leiden 1633 – 1707 London
The Dutch Fleet Setting Sail
Black chalk and grey washings on paper 155 x 410 mm
Private collection, The Netherlands
A flurry of majestic ships have flocked together. They are lifting their anchors and setting their sails, ready to depart. Many of them are already busy manoeuvring using the moderate breeze. The fluttering flags identify the vessels as Dutch. This could be a fleet of East-Indiamen or they could be men-o-war. The usual location to assemble was between Den Helder, where there was a fortification, and nearby Texel, where the tall ships were protected from westerly winds and could be supplied.
Father and son Van de Velde were the most prolific draughtsmen of the Dutch Golden Age. They embodied Pliny’s well-known phrase ‘nulla dies sine linea’ (not a day without a line). Van de Velde the Younger’s owed his productivity to a singular talent that enabled him to conjure a truthful scene on the beach or at sea with just a few lines of his pencil or a dash or two with his brush. Van de Velde maybe executed thousands of such drawings. However detailed his drawings are, each specimen breathes the master’s passionate interest in shipping.
The present drawing may have evolved from a quick sketch after life done sitting on a quay or on the beach (contrary to his father, Van de Velde the Younger is not believed to have ventured onto sea until after the former’s death) and typically would have been judiciously worked out with washes and additional detail in the studio. On the right there is a breakwater, confirming the scene’s proximity to a shore. The somewhat cramped composition showing the ships unrealistically close to each could also imply that Van de Velde composed the entire scene in his studio, using sketches after life, in preparation of a painted work. Anyhow, this large sheet gives a stunning record of a large fleet of threemasters slowly moving on the water.
Willem van de Velde the Younger and his father and teacher Willem van de Velde the Elder are the most famous marine artists of the seventeenth century. Their depictions of shipping are artistic highpoints while many of these scenes represent events of massive importance such as episodes of heroic sea-battles and consequently have shaped the historical image of the Dutch Golden Age as well. Whereas Willem van de Velde the Younger is primarily known as a painter, both father and son produced a vast body of drawings. The greatest holding of van de Velde drawings is nowadays in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, while the second largest public collection is kept in the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam.
Shortly after Willem’s birth the family moved to Amsterdam. He initially trained with his father but was sent off to Weesp around 1648 to finish his education with Simon de Vlieger. In 1652 he was back in Amsterdam and married Petronella le Maine but divorced her only one year later. In 1666 he married his second wife Magdalena Walraven. By the closing of 1672 Willem and his father had left for England for good, settling in Greenwich, in the outskirts of London. At first they primarily worked for King Charles II, who provided them with lodgings in Greenwich and allowed them to
use the Queen’s House as their studio, a handsome building designed by Inigo Jones and presently part of the Maritime Museum which houses so many outstanding works by the Van de Veldes. In 1674 a royal warrant stipulated that both artists were to receive an annual pension of one hundred Pounds while to were also to receive payment for every painting individually. From the outset, the Van de Veldes also worked for the king’s brother, the future James II, who continued patronizing them after his brother’s death in 1685. In 1691 the Van de Veldes settled in Westminster, London, where they remained until their deaths. They are buried alongside each other in the church of St James, Piccadilly. Willem the Younger had two sons, Willem III and Cornelis, who also became marine painters and continued to work in their father’s style. Van de Velde also had some English followers. Namely Peter Monamy and Robert Woodstock, who further contributed to Van de Velde’s fame by producing versions and imitations of the master.