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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Willem van de Velde the Elder/Dutch Ships near the Coast/early 1650s,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, http://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/90155 (accessed September 30, 2016).

 

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Overview

Willem van de Velde the Elder was a master draughtsman whose numerous pen drawings of the Dutch fleet were in high demand during his lifetime. The admiralty repeatedly requested that he accompany the fleet to create a visual record of its actions. Van de Velde combined a solid grasp of the complex movements of ships in the midst of battle with such unerring accuracy that historians have been able to identify many of the individual ships and specific sea battles that he depicted over the course of his prolific career.

Aside from being renowned as a draughtsman, Van de Velde pioneered a new technique in the early 1650s called pen painting (penschilderij), which he used to create this work. Finished pen paintings, usually executed on panel but also on canvas, resemble elaborately worked-out, detailed pen drawings made on paper. Much more durable than a drawing on paper, however, a pen painting could be framed for hanging, and the conceit that the artist had created a painting that looked like a drawing further enhanced its appeal. In this pen painting, several large ships flying Dutch flags are at anchor in choppy waters near a broad, sandy beach, while travelers (or crew members) are making their way from the shore to the ships in wooden rowboats.

The international prestige of the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century was based on its global dominance in maritime trade and transport. Advanced technology, skilled sailors, and a government that promoted commerce had turned the Dutch merchant fleet into an economic engine and the nation’s navy into the efficient protector of that engine. The booming economy generated a level of wealth that turned this period into the country’s Golden Age. A modern shipbuilding industry produced efficient vessels that could carry much cargo yet required smaller crews compared to the boats built by the country’s chief competitors, particularly Spain, England, and Sweden. Dutch ships fished the waters of the North Sea and carried cargo to and from the Baltic region, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic coastline of Europe. Large merchant ships came back from the Far East and West Indies loaded with exotic commodities.

Entry

The Dutch Republic was a great seafaring nation, whose military might, economic prosperity, and international prestige were intimately entwined with its ability to sail the high seas and to control its own coastlines.[1] The Netherlands had a flourishing shipbuilding industry, which produced boats that could sail faster and maneuver more easily than those of its prime competitors, particularly Spain, England, and Sweden. Its boats were able to fish the shallow waters near the coast, carry cargo across the stormy Baltic and North Seas, and even travel thousands of miles to the Far East and the West Indies in search of exotic spices. The pride the Dutch people felt for their country’s fleet is particularly evident in the enormous expense that was directed toward the decoration of vessels both large and small. Elaborate coats of arms that were sculpted, painted, and gilded on ships’ sterns identified the vessels and their owners, whether warships belonging to the Dutch admiralty, merchant ships sailing under the auspices of the East India or West India Companies, or any number of other seafaring craft owned by cities or private investors.

Willem van de Velde the Elder was a prolific and skilled draughtsman renowned for his numerous drawings in chalk, pencil, and wash of the Dutch fleet, from detailed renderings of individual vessels to panoramic views of ships at anchor or in the midst of battle at sea. The admiralty thought so highly of his work that he was asked repeatedly to sail with the fleet and record what he saw. Not only was Van de Velde able to grasp the complex movements of ships in the midst of battle, but he knew the size and structure of particular vessels, which he represented with unerring accuracy and clarity. His careful drawings and paintings of the activities and appearance of individual ships and sea battles have often enabled their identification by historians, making his oeuvre one of the most important visual sources of information on the Dutch navy from this period.

Aside from his renown and legacy as a draughtsman, Van de Velde was a pioneer in the art of pen painting (penschilderij), a technique of working with pen on prepared panel or prepared canvas.[2] In the early 1650s Van de Velde, along with a few other marine painters, in particular Heerman Witmont (c. 1605–after 1683) from Delft and Experiens Sillemans (c. 1611–1653) from Amsterdam, perfected this remarkable manner of painting in which the composition is created with the linear vocabulary of engraving in its controlled organization of lines and use of cross-hatching.[3] The illusionistic conceit of paintings that looked like prints appealed enormously to collectors of the day, and they were highly valued.

In Dutch Ships near the Coast, large ships flying Dutch flags rest at anchor in choppy waters near a broad, sandy beach, seeming to await the arrival of travelers coming from shore in wooden rowboats. Van de Velde probably made this work in the early 1650s, before he began to create more complex pen paintings that included larger and more elaborate ships.[4] In its scale and character this pen painting is extremely close to A Sea-piece with a Dutch Merchant Ship and a Swedish Flute, in the National Gallery of Scotland, which is signed and dated 1650 [fig. 1]. Aside from the appearance of dark-finned porpoises in the foreground of both scenes, the position of the large vessels near a sandy shore is quite similar. Van de Velde may have used the same preparatory drawing in rendering the fully manned rowboat in the lower left of both works, although the size of the boat in the two paintings is not identical.

These compositional and chronological similarities may indicate that the subjects of these paintings are also comparable. The Edinburgh painting, which depicts a boat with the Swedish flag in the Dutch port of West Terschelling, seems to feature trade between The Netherlands and Sweden.[5] In the mid-seventeenth century, merchant fleets sailing to Scandinavia from Terschelling were often escorted by warships because of the ongoing maritime conflicts between Sweden and Denmark. Unfortunately, even though a number of the ships’ coats of arms in the National Gallery of Art painting are visible on their sterns, neither the ships nor the port have been identified. The yacht at the left, for example, has a tree on her taffrail, while the large armed frigate in the center has two rampant lions holding the coat of arms of the House of Orange. In spite of these visual markers, it cannot be determined whether a specific place or event inspired Van de Velde to create this work.[6]

As is characteristic of his early pen paintings, Van de Velde has here prepared an oak panel with a white chalk Ground, which he allowed to dry thoroughly.[7] He covered the ground with two thin layers of lead white oil paint before creating his design. The technique by which he did so, however, is not entirely clear. Visually, it would appear that Van de Velde drew his composition with a reed pen, carefully weighing his pen lines from dark to light to enhance the sense of depth. Microscopic examination, however, has revealed that many of the lines are characteristic of printed lines rather than those drawn with a pen.[8] It may well be that Van de Velde, much like Experiens Sillemans in his pen paintings, utilized a counterproof technique when creating this image.[9] He probably first made pen drawings on paper and then, with the ink still slightly wet, pressed the designs against the panel. It is likely that he composed his scene by combining a number of drawings of individual ships. The visual evidence indicates that he then reinforced the design with careful pen strokes since many of the counterproof lines were pale and/or had gaps in them because of the irregularity of the panel surface. These pen lines are particularly evident in the foreground boats.[10]

The removal of varnish during the conservation process in 2011 provided a visual surprise that is still not completely understood. Without the layers of discolored varnish, microscopic examinations revealed that the white surface beneath each and every pen line was raised. Strikingly, even where the black lines of a ship’s rigging or sail had been totally abraded away, their prior existence could be confirmed through such raised lines in the underlying layer [fig. 2]. This phenomenon allowed the conservator to redraw the missing parts of the design accurately by following these raised lines with a sharp pen.[11]

This unexpected discovery seemed to raise the possibility that the previously observed printed lines were not the result of a counterproof technique, but were made by placing an engraved plate directly on the panel and passing them through a printing press. Ad Stijnman, however, carefully reviewed the visual evidence, and has convincingly determined that the lines were not the result of an intaglio process.[12] Crucial to his conclusion was the fact that the lines were not made with an oil-based ink but with a lamp-black ink in a water-based binding medium.[13] He also noted that subtle brush marks were evident in the white under layer, and that these would have been flattened if the panel had been subjected to the pressure of a printing press. Stijnman suggested that raised lines may have been created by the ink causing the ground to swell, or, conversely, by the shrinking of uncovered ground layer.

The rationale for devising this extraordinary technique must have been economic. Van de Velde must have determined that the effort and expense involved in making a pen painting on panel would yield a substantial return on his investment. He almost certainly kept the technique a secret so that he would not diminish the viewer’s amazement at his tour-de-force ability to draw in the detailed manner of a print.[14] Indeed, he was correct, and the wonder of these remarkable paintings still resonates today.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014

Inscription

lower right: W.V.Velde

Inscription

Provenance

(Sale, Frederik Muller, Amsterdam, 25 April 1911, no. 198). Whitney Warren [1864-1943]; by inheritance to his daughter, Mrs. Reginald B. Rives [née Gabrielle Warren, 1895-1971]; by inheritance to her son, Lloyd M. Rives [1921-2011], Newport;[1] gift 1994 to NGA.

Bibliography
1990
Robinson, Michael Strang. Van de Velde: A Catalogue of the Paintings of the Elder and the Younger Willem van de Velde. 2 vols. Greenwich, 1990: 1:156, no. 644.
Technical Summary

The support consists of an oak panel made from two planks with horizontal grain. All four edges are beveled on the reverse. Dendrochronological analysis indicates that the earliest possible creation date for the panel is 1636.[1] The panel was prepared with a white ground. The white ground and the white paint layer on top of it[2] were both carefully applied with a brush and are relatively thin, causing the horizontal wood grain to be visible. Many of the lines in this work, particularly the delicate lines in the background, are extremely faint or almost entirely lost. They were reconstructed during a conservation treatment that began in 2011.

The panel is generally in very good condition except for a number of small chips at the edges, probably caused by frame abrasion. There is also a gash in the panel in the upper right corner of the sky. Blisters and cupping, and flake losses in the lower part of the painting, all of which had developed because of an adhesion problem between the ground layer and the white paint layer, were addressed during the current treatment.

 

[1] Dendrochronological analysis also showed that the wood was oak from the Baltic/Polish Region. The analysis was performed by Dr. Peter Klein, Universität Hamburg (see letter dated August 4, 1998, in NGA Conservation department files).

[2] The paint and ground layers were studied by the NGA Painting Conservation department with the NGA Scientific Research department using cross-sections (see report dated March 21, 2011).

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44F
revoution +Anglo-Dutch Wars
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naval force
46B
trade
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merchant shipping
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pen-painting