In the right foreground is the Brederode, identified by the stern decoration with the arms of Prince Frederik Hendrik, and by the inscription BRE DE RO DE on the wing transom above the gunports. Flying from the maintop is the red, white and blue Prince’s flag, indicating that the admiral is on board. The flag on the poop is probably blue, which was the signal to weigh anchor. The Brederode was one of the largest Dutch warships of her day, and was built in 1645 at the Rotterdam Admiralty yard. She mounted 59 guns, and was the flagship of Witte de With, and later of Maarten Harpertsz. Tromp, who was killed on board at the Battle of Scheveningen (Ter Heide). In 1658 Witte de With was also mortally wounded on the Brederode during the Battle of the Sound, when she was sunk by the Swedes. In the center foreground a small sloop is being rowed across to the flagship.
On the left is the coast of the island of Vlieland, with its large beacon. Several people have gathered on the beach to watch the fleet set sail. Slightly further off, to the left of the Brederode, is a ship the vice-admiral’s flag at the foremast. To the right of the Brederode, among the many ships and vessels in the background, is a flute, one of the commonest merchant ships of the seventeenth century. At far right is the island of Terschelling with the Brandaris light tower. There are several clues which make the scene fairly easy to identify. The presence of a large fleet of merchantmen and men-o-war in the Vlie Gat can be linked to two historical events. By the mid-seventeenth century it had become customary for Dutch ships trading with Scandinavia to sail together on the same day. These merchant fleets were often escorted by squadrons of warships. In 1644 and 1645 the escort was particularly strong, for Sweden and Denmark were at war, and the Danish king was continually raising the toll dues through the Sound between the two countries, contrary to earlier agreements. On both occasions the fleet of warships was commanded by Witte de With, Vice-Admiral of Holland and West Friesland. On the first voyage he raised his flag on the Princesse Royale. The following year, in June 1645, he was appointed admiral especially for the expedition, and was given a fleet of 47 ships divided into seven squadrons to protect a fleet of around 300 merchantmen on their voyage north. This time De With’s flagship was the Brederode, fresh from the builder’s yard”still pristine and unspotted” (“daer de maeghtdom noch aen is”), as De With himself described her in a letter to the States-General in The Hague. Given the inscription on the transom identifying the centerpiece of this pen painting as the Brederode, the scene must be the departure of the second expedition to the Sound on 9 June 1645.
Van de Velde was evidently present when the fleet sailed, for he made a number of drawings of the event which he later used for several pen paintings, specimens of which are in the Lakenhal in Leiden and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
Van de Velde did not always make his pen paintings immediately after the event, but sometimes as much as ten or twenty years later. However, there are reasons to believe that this particular grisaille was made shortly after the fleet set sail in 1645, and that it served as the model for his other pen paintings of the subject, particularly the one in the Lakenhal. Michael Robinson bases this suggestion on the fact that this grisaille is remarkably small compared to Van de Velde’s other pen paintings, and that the design is simpler, without the additions found in the other versions, such as extra ships in the foreground and more activity on the coast. This would indicate that this version preceded the other pen paintings, which are considerably larger.
It is known that Van de Velde was a keen student of the perspective of ships at sea, as was his friend Simon de Vlieger, who probably taught the younger Willem for several years. This grisaille suggests that Van de Velde was still at an early stage of his perspective studies, reinforcing the belief that this is one of his earliest pen paintings. That, and its artistic qualities, give it a valuable place in his fascinating oeuvre.