Witmont, Heerman

(Delft 1605 - 1684 Delft)

Two seascapes

Oil on panel
53 x 65 cm
Signed (both)

Two seascapes

Heerman Witmont is a mysterious artist about whose life is known next to nothing.i To begin with, we are in the dark about his place and exact year of birth. Considering his surname, he might have been born in the small town of Wittmund in Eastern Friesland in Germany. He is first documented on 6 November 1642 in Delft, when a son named Gillis was baptized. Witmont was married to Jacomijna Gillis, who bore him another three children. A son, Abraham, was also baptized in Delft on 14 January 1648. In 1644, Heerman was enrolled in the Delft painters’ guild as ‘synde vreemt’, confirming that he was not born there. As far as can be made out, he seems to have spent his entire further life in Delft. Several inventories of Delft citizens list works by his hand. Through his art, however, he was also known beyond the city borders. The Amsterdam city doctor Jan Sysmus, who compiled a list of artists between 1669 and 1678, mentions and praises him: ‘H. Witmont, big shipping with the pen, beautiful’. Abraham Bredius writes that Witmont was called upon to illuminate a few official letters that were sent to the Russian tsar. He may also have produced designs for tapestries.ii In 1676, the town of Delft commissioned him to draw coats of arms for an official map of the town.

The present impeccably preserved pair of panel paintings is one of only two pairs preserved by Witmont.iii Their uniqueness is further enforced by the fact that they are still in their original frames. Witmont’s oeuvre is about as small as Johannes Vermeer’s and counts, our pair included, no more than 34 paintings and no drawings. Unpublished and previously unknown, our pair is both a highpoint in Witmont’s oeuvre and an important addition to it.

All Witmont’s works are so-called ‘pen paintings’, a sobriquet covering works executed in a variety of techniques but mainly making use of pen and ink over a painted white ground on panel or canvas.iv They all, to a varying degree, imitate prints. Strikingly enough, nearly all pen paintings are marines. Due to the dearth of dated works, the birth of marine pen painting is still shrouded in mist. It is can with some confidence be placed in the latter half of the 1640s and three artists are usually associated with the start of this subgenre that turned out to be such an enormous success: Willem van de Velde the Elder (c. 1611-1693), Experiens Sillemans (1611-1652/53) and Heerman Witmont. In older literature, the latter is boldly credited with the foundation of the genre.v

At the basis of pen painting lies the idea of producing drawings as finished and independent artworks that could be displayed framed and on a wall just like paintings, which was invented by Hendrick Goltzius, the versatile master from Haarlem. In his famous and virtuosic ‘pen-wercken’ executed on paper in the 1580s, Goltzius was the first to imitate the characteristics of engravings. Later on, he switched to vellum and simultaneously his pen works increased in size. This was not yet the final step in the process as Goltzius’ biographer Karel van Mander keenly observed in 1604: ‘After this Goltzius got the idea/ of drawing with the pen on canvases primed ones or prepared ones with oil paint’.vi Of the three groundbreaking masterpieces he specifically mentions, two are still preserved. For the time being, the only artist to adopt the latter experiment was Goltzius’ stepson Jacob Matham, in one isolated example at that.vii

It is unknown whether Van de Velde, Sillemans or Witmont has ever set eyes on pen paintings by Goltzius or Matham. Van Mander was anyhow widely read, especially among artists. Van Mander’s lines about Goltzius pen paintings, which pour over with enthusiasm, could easily have sparked these artists’ imagination. Whatever the case, the concept of imitating prints with pen and ink on paper or parchment was meanwhile kept alive, albeit in discrete small works, by artists such as Jacob Matham’s son Adriaen Matham, Pieter Holsteyn II and Guilliam de Heer. And Van de Velde.

A process not dissimilar to Goltzius’ can be observed in Van de Velde’s early output.viii He was executing fastidiously worked-out drawings on vellum that remind of prints, possibly already by the early 1630s. The earliest dated example of 1638 in the Rijksmuseum (RP-T-1988-102-00), with sizable dimensions (59.3 x 80.5 cm), may well represent the moment when Van de Velde had actually reached the limits of what was possible on this type of support, for his earliest dated, true ‘pen painting’ on wood stems of that year as well.ix It was in the 1650s that Van de Velde became dissatisfied with panel for the same reason, there were limitations to the format, and switched to canvas. Size mattered to Van de Velde as also becomes clear in a letter of 1652 to the Swedish general Gustav Wrangel, in which the artist professes he could make drawings on large canvases.

Witmont’s pen paintings are a phenomenon difficult to fathom without any contact with Van de Velde who, of the three mentioned artists relevant to the genesis of the genre, was without any doubt by far the most ingenious. Some sort of contact between them must have existed at an early point, which would imply that Witmont has sojourned in or at least visited Amsterdam on a regular basis. Just how early these contacts would have been established, just how close and enduring they were, must remain subject to conjecture but one, intriguing notarial document dated 29 April 1654 enlightens us. Van de Velde was asked to inspect drawings by Witmont at the beginning of the previous year. A certain Barent Hommersz wished to buy them and a question was whether they could be washed. Van de Velde insisted this could not be done thus asserting knowledge of Witmont’s technique.x

To analyze Witmont’s potential association with Van de Velde we would need clues distilled from his earliest works, which are likely to have been executed in the 1630s. Confounding matters, however, is that virtually no dated works exist by Witmont.xi Approximate dates can be gauged by looking at the type of shipping depicted. Works executed in an archaic style might be considered juvenile output. An interesting case in point is a pen painting in Otterlo, which perhaps could be from the late 1630s.xii Finally, we have a terminus post quem for Witmont’s depictions of sea battles, such as his Battle of the Gabbard, which took place in 1653, or his Battle of the Downs (1652). Various pen paintings by Witmont contain clear echo’s of works by Van de Velde from the mid-1640s, mostly in terms of composition, and these are likely to be early. But documentary evidence places Witmont firmly in Delft by this time. Still hypothetically, Witmont could have been in Amsterdam until the early 1640s.

There also seems to be a relation with Sillemans who, according to the Van de Velde scholar Robinson, may have collaborated in the Van de Velde workshop.xiii Sillemans
experimented with a counterproof technique and printed his paintings.xiv As a result, of several compositions various versions exist and the same motifs recur time and again, often in new combinations. An (almost) literal reuse of elements has also been observed in Witmont’s pen paintings, although there seems to be no evidence that he utilized a printing technique.xv To enhance the impression of a print Sillemans painted black framing lines round his marine of 1649 in the Rijksmuseum (SK-A-1366), that artist’s earliest dated work by the way. Witmont also added them in our pair.

Witmont’s precise technique has not yet been unraveled. A puzzling hallmark of his pen paintings is a stipple technique. Witmont did also work with hatchings in imitation of engraving but the thousands of small dots used to create tonal values and the surface textures of the water and the sails of the ships appear to be his original contribution to marine pen painting. Witmont’s marines indeed look like prints, in the first place owing to the controlled range of shade and light, which calls up a certain overall and even paleness that is also characteristic for prints. Yet, the typical dots Witmont used were not used in prints at all at that time. The earliest engravers already created stippling effects with burin or dry-point, with Giulio Campagnola as the first to make extensive use of them around 1500.xvi These dots, however, under magnification look very different from the small irregular round spots we see with Witmont. Although we don’t know how he applied them, from the looks of it, it may well have been a time consuming method. Just like Van de Velde, Witmont also worked up his pen paintings with the brush to suggest atmosphere and add depth to shading.

In this pair, Witmont conjured heavy weather. Thundering waves splash up high. A low standpoint and horizon make the scene ever more forceful. The three-masters are
labouring to hold their ground. In one of the paintings, precarious rocks as part of a capricious coastline add another dramatic accent. In both scenes, fluyten are featured, a
type of Dutch cargo vessel, with their typical round hulls and narrow decks. The other three-masters are probably also merchantmen. The relatively high sterns of the so-called Spiegel-ships make them identifiable as a relatively early type that could have been built in the late 1620s or 1630s. Dendrochronological analysis allows for dating the
paintings in the late 1640s at the earliest, with a date in the early 1650s as a more likely alternative.

The possibility that Witmont portrayed real ships cannot be excluded. With about 80 % of these pictures’ surface taken up by the sky, however, these storm scenes are first and foremost about weather conditions and atmosphere. The seagulls flying over the water in the left and right foreground indicate the directions of the wind. The diminutive shapes of shipping in the further distance emphasize the vastness of the open water. With his choice for a rough sea Witmont deviates from the pen paintings of Willem van de Velde the Elder, who favoured calm water surfaces. A number of other signed works by Witmont that are comparable in subject and treatment have survived and will be from the same period.xvii


i For a biography see, Lammertse in J. Giltaij et al., Lof der Zeevaart, Rotterdam (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen), Berlin (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie im Bodemuseum) 1996, p. 407.
ii For this see: A. Knops, L. Thijsse, Een stuck van Witmont mette pen gedaan, Delft 2011, p. 28.
iii This pair of similar but slightly smaller storm scenes was in 1974 with art dealer Hoogsteder in The Hague (see photo’s at RKD, The Hague).
iv See for this the classic essay by Lammertse, ‘“Watmen met een penne doen can”: over penschilderijen met een maritieme voorstelling’, in Giltaij et al. 1996 (see note 1), pp. 45-59.
v For a brief but through survey of this discussion see: D. Freedberg, A. Burnstock en A. Phenix, ‘Paintings or prints? Experiens Sillemans and the Origins of the Grisaille Sea-piece: Notes on a rediscovered technique’, Print Quarterly 1 (1984), p. 153, note 14.
vi For this see: L. Nichols, The paintings of Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617): a monograph and catalogue raisonné, Doornspijk 2013, p. 26.
vii Fantasy composition with the brewery De Drie Leliën at the Spaarne in Haarlem, the country seat Velserend in Santpoort and (seen from the north) the ruins of Brederode Castle (dated 1627), Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum.
viii See for this: M. Bijl, ‘Willem van de Velde marine draughtsman’, The Rijksmuseum Bulletin 58 (2010), pp. 190-97 and more recently: R. Daalder, Van de Velde & Son, marine painters : the firm of Willem van de Velde the Elder and Willem van der Velde the Younger, 1640-1707, Leiden 2016, pp. 42-50.
ix A kaag and other vessels off a spierhead, Greenwich, National Maritime Museum.
x The document was first published by P. Haverkorn van Rijsewijk, ‘De eerste oorlog met Engeland en Willem van de Velde de Oude,’ Oud Holland 17 (1899), p. 35.
xi Occasional dates may be found on the ships but no date accompanies a signature.
xii Kröller-Müller Museum.
xiii For Robinson’s suggestion, see: M.S. Robinson, The paintings of the Willem van de Veldes: a catalogue of the paintings of the Elder and the Younger Willem van de Velde, 2 vols., Greenwich 1990, vol. 1, p. 99.
xiv Freedberg et al. 1984 (see note 5), passim.
xv If Witmont did not work with a counterproof technique he will have used detailed drawn studies. Technical research on Witmont’s work would be welcomed to shed more light on how the artist transposed the motifs from drawing to primed painting support. Various ships in our pair also recur in other paintings by Witmont.
xvi A. Stijnman, Engraving and etching 1400-2000: a history of the development of manual intaglio printmaking processes, Houten 2012, pp. 33, 181-84.
xvii Apart from the already-mentioned Hoogsteder pair there was one at sale Amsterdam, Christie’s, 9 May 2001, lot 131 (photo RKD, The Hague). One in a private Dutch collection was discussed by Lammertse and illustrated in Giltaij et al. 1996 (note 1), pp. 408-10, and yet another was illustrated there as a comparison as well (in 1992 with Gallery Lingenauber in Düsseldorf). Both latter works feature a three-master with its spiegel turned to the spectator that is literally repeated in one of our pair. Finally, a storm scene was at sale Amsterdam, Christie’s, 14 May 2003, lot 173.


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