During the month of May 1665, the Dutch fleet, under the command of Jacob Baron van Wassenaer Obdam (1610 – 1665), gathered before the coast of Den Helder and the island of Texel, in the so-called Marsdiep, in preparation for what would soon become the first naval battle of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Both Willem van de Velde the Younger and the Elder were present to make a visual record of the activities. While the father joined the fleet at sea in a galjoot like the one in our painting, the son probably worked from the shore.
In a calm sea a great fleet lies at anchor or prepares to set sail. In view of the large number of big ships, we must be looking at the ‘Lands Vloot’, the Dutch Navy, most probably in Texel roads. There is a great deal to be seen. On the left is a kaag, a small flat- bottomed boat with two passengers. Behind it there is another, sailing towards us. The ship behind that flies a large flag; it is a luxurious vessel – a pleasure yacht. It has one mast with mizzen rigging. In the middle a sloop may be transporting some sailors to the fleet. The two ships to the right are galliots. The entire scene is depicted under a magnificent cloudy Dutch sky.
The States General of the United Netherlands put a galliot at Willem van de Velde the Elder’s disposal; from it he was able to draw ships and battles at sea from his own observation. For an eyewitness report of the Battle of Sole Bay (1672) the States General commissioned ‘a galjoot Captain called Jan Lely of the galjoot Hollandia to take on board the person of Willem van de Velde, ship’s draughtsman, and to go with him ahead’. These swift yet accurate sketches were later often worked up into paintings. Van de Velde the Elder was a reporter before there even was such an occupation. Willem van de Velde the Younger never used a galliot, and when father and son were living and working in England Willem van de Velde the Elder no longer used one either; the English monarch did not grant them permission to be aboard a galliot in the thick of ships fighting. The king was far too afraid that something would happen to them. We do not know why Willem van de Velde the Younger depicted two galliots—perhaps it was as a tribute to his father.
Seemingly simple and unassuming in its choice of composition, and limited in its range of colour, the present seascape by Willem van de Velde the Younger nonetheless fully succeeds in capturing the grandness of the Dutch coast. While in the lower left corner a small edge of the beach, functioning as a repoussoir, is still visible, the short breakwater on the left frames the composition. It is not a coincidence that the top of the breakwater is level with the horizon, which divides the picture plane, leaving 75 percent of it to the sky. The sunlight shines through the magnificently painted cumulus clouds, which cast shadow over the water’s surface. The delightful interplay of sunlit and shady areas greatly enhances the painting’s depth and atmospheric perspective. In the centre of the picture a kaag sets sail to a stiff breeze, its crew hoisting the sail. Just behind it a crowded boat leads the eye to the middle distance, where a yacht flying a large flag comes from the left, while to the right a galjoot lays head to wind with shaking sails. In the distance, towards the horizon, a large fleet of ships can be seen. The connection between foreground and background is further emphasised by a weyschuit setting off from the breakwater with a gentleman and a lady on board, no doubt to convey them to one of the large ships in the distance. Another weyschuit is just coming back to shore.
The present seascape belongs to a group of works by Van de Velde the Younger painted around the same time, now in Paris (Fondation Custodia), New York (Metropolitan Museum of Art), Amsterdam (Rijksmuseum), Kassel (Gemäldegalerie) and Los Angeles (Private Collection). The Custodia work, notably, shares virtually identical measurements with the present painting.
The Most Eminent Dutch Marine Artist Painter of Seafights to Their Majesties King Charles the Second and King James the Second
Willem van de Velde the Younger and his father, Willem van de Velde the Elder, were two of the finest marine artists in Europe. Willem the Younger was born in Leiden in 1633. Shortly afterwards the family moved to a house near the River IJ in Amsterdam. His father had by then achieved fame as a skilled and accurate naval draughtsman and a maker of pen paintings. Willem van de Velde the Elder was the leading artist in this fascinating technique. It was probably Willem van de Velde the Younger’s father who taught him how to depict a ship accurately.
He subsequently became a pupil of the famous Simon de Vlieger and learned the art of painting. At the age of 18 he was working independently—his earliest dated painting bears the inscription 1651—but from 1652 onwards father and son worked together. The immense importance of the Van de Veldes lies not only in the development of marine painting; they are also significant as compilers of historical records.
In 1672 father and son decided to try their luck in England in the service of King Charles II. The king and his brother James, Duke of York, were so delighted to have gained the services of the two leading marine artists of the day that father and son were given a large house in Greenwich and a studio was built for them in the Queen’s House there.
Van de Velde the Elder continued to work until his death in 1693. Willem the Younger remained in England after his father’s death, although he visited the Dutch Republic from time to time.
He died in 1707 and, like his father, was buried in St James’s, Piccadilly.