Two artists, father and son Van de Velde, both with the first name Willem, dominated maritime painting for a long period of the seventeenth century and, as an example and inspiration, even well after their deaths, into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Willem van de Velde the Elder (Leiden 1610 – London 1693) and his son Willem van de Velde the Younger (Leiden 1633 – Greenwich 1707) were famous for their drawings and oil paintings of ships, coastal scenes and maritime activities at sea. The father was primarily a draughtsman, the son excelled in oil paintings, but was also a gifted draughtsman. Characteristic of his work in oil is his accuracy, combined with a subtle rendering of light and reflections on the water and on the sails of the ships. This, combined with a talent for composition, produced an oeuvre of paintings that depict the maritime business of his day in an inimitable way. In England, where the Van de Veldes settled in 1672, Willem van de Velde the Younger laid the foundation for the flourishing school of British marine painter.
Ships on a Roadstead
This painting is an example of the high level of work Willem van de Velde achieved early in his career, around 1660. It dates from the artist’s Dutch period, when father and son had a joint studio in Amsterdam. In its use of color, it recalls the silver-gray palette of van de Velde’s teacher Simon de Vlieger (1601-1653). What we see is a windy day at sea, in front of a coast with some buildings. The wind and sunlight veiled by clouds are coming from the left. The high sky is beginning to close in on the left: heavy showers or thunderstorms are coming. The waves are already being stirred up by the stiff breeze.
The main motif of this painting is the large ship on the left. This gives the painting the appearance of a ship’s portrait, with the necessary touch-ups to liven it up. But it is not a real portrait, for the painter would have depicted the ship on the transom, the place where the decoration referring to the ship’s name was applied. So there are not many clues for the exact identification of the ship, only the substantial size and the flagging indicate that we are dealing with the flagship of a senior officer. Ahead, on the blind or bowsprit stem, we see a flag with an orange lion with a bundle of arrows and a scimitar on a yellow field, the flag of the States General. Attached to the foremast is a small “double Prince’s Flag”, a variant of the usual tricolor, which was mainly used on ships of the Admiralty of Amsterdam.
This admiralty was one of the five naval organizations which, under the auspices of the States General, jointly equipped the war fleet. A large red-white-and-blue flag (the States flag) flies on the stem of the main mast. This indicates that the commander of a squadron is on board. Five other warships of this squadron are shown, less prominently, in the background. Finally, from the campanile, a red flag with a depiction of an arm holding a saber is flying. This is a so-called blood flag that had different meanings depending on the situation. At the start of a battle this flag was raised, but it was also a signal for the captains of a squadron to meet at the flagship for consultation, the ‘council of war’. The latter is most obvious in this depiction: after all, nothing indicates an approaching sea battle. The ship has lowered the yards of the foremast and the main mast and is in the process of anchoring, a maneuver that the other ships have already partially performed. Because we see the ship from the front, at an angle on the port side, the entire upper deck is visible to the viewer. There is a great deal of activity there, as to be expected when anchoring.
As a counterpoint to the large ship on the left, Van de Velde has added some ‘extra work’. Apart from the rowing boat on the right and a small inland vessel in the center, on the right these are two small ships with one mast and gaff rigging: a kaag with a wijd- or smalschip behind it. Such barges were to be found on the inland waterways and, as here, in the sea lanes of the Republic. They transported both goods and passengers, according to a strictly regulated timetable. A nice detail is that the men on the kaag and the wijdschip are clearly busy with the rudder and the sails to prevent a collision between them. Van de Velde de Jonge, who like his father did not sail with the war fleet, was familiar from his own experience with sailing (as a passenger) on such inland vessels.
In the background is a strip of land, subtly lit by the sun: a beach with low dunes. The buildings on the left are so sketchily indicated that a precise identification of the place of action cannot be given. This can also not have been the artist’s intention, as he wanted to depict a generic image of ships in turbulent water near a coast, just as contemporaries such as Frans Hals and Rembrandt painted ‘tronies’ or types in addition to portraits. Van de Velde’s source of inspiration may have been the Goereese lagoon, but also the coastal waters of Zeeland or the roadside resort of Texel.
This painting is not characteristic within the oeuvre of Willem van de Velde the Younger. In his Dutch period, until the emigration of father and son to England in 1672, calm coastal scenes dominated, with more use of color than here. Only later – especially after 1672, due to demand from the English market – did he start painting more spectacular canvases, with ships during storms and thunderstorms. Yet this canvas does not stand alone. Michael Robinson’s catalog of paintings by both Van de Veldes also includes several stormy marines from the early Dutch period, or paintings with a similar weather change as in this painting. Among them is also a painting that is a variant of the work discussed here The versions are not completely identical. The most striking difference is the position of the large warship on the left: here we see it angled forward on the starboard side, while the canvas discussed here shows the port side of the same ship. Some differences can also be found in the position of the other ships, as if the artist had taken two snapshots at one minute intervals.
It was precisely with such idiosyncratic repetitions that the artist could afford such variations. Which of the two paintings was the original version cannot be determined. The motif of the ship, seen obliquely from the front and with billowing sails on the main mast and jib seems to have pleased Van de Velde. A third canvas, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, also shows more or less the same ship, albeit without many other vessels around it.
The version discussed here shows a number of features that are typical of Van de Velde’s style. For example, he tends to make the masts of the large ships slightly longer than they actually are, giving them extra elegance. And also the carefully composed backdrop of vessels in the background increases the liveliness of the work, also something in which this master excelled. Moreover, the details on the ships, the men and the rigging invite one to look long and attentively.
Dr. Remmelt Daalder, Amsterdam, 15 februari 2020