A kaag at sea in a stiff breeze contains all the elements that made Willem van de Velde the Younger so highly regarded in his day. In his own country, then the Republic of the United Netherlands, but also in England, where he settled in 1672. The work shows how he broadened his repertoire by working in a large format and with much more spectacle than before. We see a risky manoeuvre of two ships on a turbulent sea, not far from a coast, with in the background a vista with other ships and a coastline. It is a crucial moment: the weather is changing; a thunderstorm is about to erupt.
There is a stiff breeze on a turbulent sea, dark thunderclouds are moving into the picture from the right, but a bright sunlight lights up the sail of the ship in the foreground. It won’t be long before a squall breaks out, it seems. The main role in this drama is played by the ship in the foreground, a small but sturdy type of inland vessel with one mast, to which a large spritsail and a jib are attached. It is a kaag, a flat-bottomed vessel with leeboards – one of which is clearly visible on the starboard side – a type of ship that could be found throughout the Netherlands, on the inland waterways and on the estuaries, the Zuiderzee and the Waddenzee. On board at least four figures can be distinguished, including a helmsman and a standing man in front of him, who seems to be giving instructions on the course to follow. At the top of the mast flies a flag with a large number of narrow, horizontal stripes, the flag of Vlieland and Terschelling.
To the left of this kaag the stern of a second ship can be seen, an inland waterway vessel of a slightly larger type, probably a wijdschip. The red-white-red flag indicates that this vessel originated in Hoorn. Both ships are sailing sharply downwind, but the composition of the painting, which directs the viewer’s gaze to the left via the long sprit of the smack sail, suggests that they are about to shift course toward a large three-masted vessel on the left.
There, on the left, we get a vista of a coast with low sandy dunes. To the right in the view is off the dune coast a number of three-masters with all their sails down. They are apparently anchored in a sheltered spot. Here we see the various moments, which incoming ships could encounter, before they had reached a safe anchorage. For example, on the far left we see how a frigate falls in and tries to lift off with flapping sails. To the right, somewhat more prominently, we see a large three-master, probably a warship, judging by the double row of guns. Almost all the sails are reefed and the ship’s crew is busy trying to trim the yard of the jib mast, to bring it into a vertical position.
Apparently, not everything goes according to plan. The mizzenmast topsail is flapping in the wind and a kind of emergency sail has been fitted to the campanile deck, which has been fastened to the deck by the corners. It is possible that the ship ran into a sandbank, or ran aground, and they are trying to lift the stern a little with the help of the cross and the emergency sail in order to get it free again.
Two small sailing barges have come alongside, from which five persons are climbing on deck, and a little further to the left a sloop with men is on its way to the ship, also to render assistance, it seems.
The place of action cannot be precisely determined. Kagen and smalschepen usually did not venture into the open sea. The low dunes suggest that we are looking at an event on the Wadden Sea, with in the background one of the Wadden Islands, Texel, Vlieland or Terschelling, the three islands that lay close to sea gates offering ships access to the North Sea. The roadstead of Texel could have been Van de Velde’s inspiration here. Ships of the Dutch East India Company, but also warships, could leave the Texel Gat directly from this location when the wind was right. Taking in fresh water and provisions, transferring the crew and transhipping goods to barges, such as the pictured wijdschip, until that time took place on the relatively open waters of the Wadden and off the coast. Another possible location is one of the sheltered anchorages at the Vlie, the sea channel between Vlieland and Terschelling.
The painting is primarily intended to provide a realistic representation of a situation familiar to many contemporaries: the manoeuvring of small ships on a turbulent sea and the activity around a ship in trouble. There are a few starting points to further interpret the scene presented here. It is not entirely out of the question that we are dealing with a barge master transporting people to the other side. The kaag in the foreground could also be a pilot vessel that, together with the wijdschip, is coming to the aid of the three-master in trouble. Pilots were required to assist incoming ships under all circumstances. A small flag on the mast of the kaag is the flag of Terschelling and Vlieland, with its series of narrow stripes in different colours. This may indicate that this is a pilot who was active on the Vlie. Whether or not it is a pilot, it seems that both small vessels are coming to the aid of the three-master further on. The spawning of the foreyard on that ship can be explained as a request for assistance. The two vessels in the foreground then comply. By first sailing the same course for a while and then dropping out, they can reach the intended target. This assistance may consist of lightening the stalled ship by, for example, taking over heavy cannons. Nothing can be determined with certainty, but there is much to suggest that this painting depicts an emergency situation on the Wadden Sea.
Willem van de Velde the Younger, is a master at leaving space open and letting the viewer fill in the story himself. He explicitly chose two anonymous inland navigation vessels as his main subject. The kaag in the foreground and the lighter directly behind it catch most of the light and together take up almost the entire right-hand side of the canvas. The stormy wind has created large waves, and the painter splashes the water against the bow of the kaagschip in a spectacular and powerful way. Van de Velde de Jonge places the viewer close to the action, as if he or she were sailing along on an imaginary third ship in the wake of the saw.
THE DATING OF THE PAINTING
The signature offers a first clue to the date of origin: before c. 1675 both Van de Velde confined themselves to marking their work with ‘WvVelde’or ‘WVV’ and is marked this way on a piece of driftwood. Another even more precise indicator is the typically Dutch theme presented here: two Dutch inland waterways and a Dutch warship in the distance. This indicates that the artist worked for a client in the Republic, so even before his departure to England in 1672. There, it is true; there was also an interest in storms at sea, but then, of course, mostly with English ships. Michael Robinson attributes this work to a series of paintings ‘showing ships and vessels in a strong breeze’, all of which he places in the period 1671-1672. In a few cases these paintings are actually dated, such as a canvas showing a kaag in a strong breeze near a harbour front from 1671, in the National Gallery of South Africa in Cape Town. The painting shows clear affinities with the canvas described here. Similarly, the painting by Van de Velde of Liefde and the Gouden Leeuwen in a Stiff Breeze, also fits stylistically into the series described by Robinson. It is dated 1670. Taken together, then, there is sufficient evidence to assume that A Kaag at Sea in a Stiff Breeze can be dated to the period 1670-1672.
THE PROVENANCE OF THE PAINTING
An artist will not have started a painting of this size lightly; there must have been a commissioner. In the case of a portrait of a ship or a heroic deed at sea, it is still possible to find the patron among the naval officers involved, but here it is more difficult. It is not inconceivable that a kaagskipper would be the purchaser of a ‘zeetje’, as a naval painting in a small format was called, but that is less obvious with this large canvas. It may have been ordered by someone who had connections with the pilotage of the seventeenth century, for example one of the commissioners of the pilotage, regents such as Cornelis Witsen or Andries de Graeff, who served on the board at that time. But that is no more than guesswork. An attractive, but also unprovable possibility is that this painting was once in the possession of the painter Lodewijk van der Helst. Like his father Bartholomeus van der Helst, he had demonstrable contacts with Willem van de Velde the Younger. The latter painted maritime scenery for portraits Bartholomeus made of rear admiral Gideon de Wildt and his wife (Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest and Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon respectively). Lodewijk van der Helst is also the creator of the well-known portrait of Willem van de Velde the Younger in the Rijksmuseum, some details of which were added by the portrayed man himself. More interesting in this case, however, is the estate inventory that Lodewijk van der Helst had made when he moved in with his mother in 1671.
It includes two works by Willem van de Velde the Younger:
Een stormtje van Willem van [de] Velde met een ebbenhoute lijst
Een heel groot zee stuck sijnde een storm van de voors[eijde] Willem van der Velde met een fijne ebbenhoute lijsten’. (A storm by Willem van [de] Velde with an ebony frame
(A very large sea piece being a storm by the aforementioned Willem van de Velde with a fine ebony frame’.)
VAN DE VELDE AND TURNER
The representation on this painting must have appealed to many people. During Van de Velde’s lifetime, at least three versions of this format were produced at the studio. That was not unusual with Van de Velde: interested parties could order a repeat from him, whether or not produced by the master himself. Later copies are also known. Furthermore, there is a steel engraving from 1810 by James Fittler, the naval engraver of King George III, based on the Toledo version (ill. 17). It is not only because of this engraving that this invention by Van de Velde has become world-famous, but mainly due to the admiration that the marine painter Joseph Mallord William Turner had for Willem van de Velde, an appreciation that many colleagues in England shared with him. At the end of the eighteenth century, the Toledo version of the painting was in the possession of Francis Egerton, Duke of Bridgewater. He asked Turner to create a contemporary pendant to it. (ill. 18). (Turner copied Van de Velde’s depiction in mirror image at approximately the same size so that a balanced ensemble was created, at least in terms of composition.(ill. 19) The rising storm, which with Van de Velde comes from the right, with Turner now drifts into the painting from the left. Much more important is that he elaborated his sea piece in his own, rough style with even more dramatic light effects than Van de Velde, something that later became so characteristic for his entire oeuvre. For the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy in London in 1801, Turner sent in his counterpart entitled Dutch boats in a gale. Today it is in the National Gallery in London, unfortunately without Van de Velde’s inspiration next to it, as this was sold by the owner to the museum in Toledo in 1977. The painting by Turner is still known as ‘The Bridgewater Sea Piece’.
The two pendents have become so famous, partly because of the growing international admiration for Turner, that there was never any doubt that the Van de Velde of Bridgewater (since 1977, therefore, the Toledo version) was the primal version of this performance. For Michael S. Robinson this was obvious; the other versions, in his opinion, were at best good copies from the studio. He has personally studied the Bridgewater version; of the painting discussed here, which for years was hidden in an Italian collection, he had only a photograph. Now that the latter canvas has been thoroughly studied, little remains of Robinson’s ranking.
In the first place, it has become apparent that both paintings are signed on a piece of driftwood in the lower left, the Toledo canvas somewhat indistinct but possibly legible as ‘W.V.Velde’, the other more clearly with ‘WVV.’ Otherwise, both canvases are almost identical, with a convincing sky in many shades and a vividly painted rough sea with beautiful highlights on the turbulent waves. During the restoration of this version, moreover, a number of pentimenti, corrections in the paint layer, were found, including in the Dutch flag and the mizzen sail of the ship in the background. This indicates that the artist, possibly in consultation with the client, made adjustments. This is usually the case with a first version, where the artist is still searching for the correct representation.
It is impossible to draw a definitive conclusion, but in any case there are enough reasons to regard both versions of ‘A Kaag at Sea in a Firm Breeze’ as equivalent, both painted by Willem van de Velde the Younger at the same time.
Dr Remmelt Daalder (with the assistance of Dr John R. Brozius)
Amsterdam, June 6, 2021