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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Willem van de Velde the Younger/Ships in a Gale/1660,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed August 07, 2022).

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Apr 24, 2014 Version

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Willem van de Velde the Younger first gained his vast knowledge of the sea and sailing ships by studying under his father, the celebrated marine painter Willem van de Velde the Elder (1611–1693). The junior Van de Velde became skilled at depicting the flow of tides, the rippling of waters against a sandy shore, and raging storms that buffeted huge seafaring vessels and threatened to destroy them. The son’s work also shows a sensitivity to the effects of light and atmosphere, which he learned from his years in the studio of Simon de Vlieger (1600/1601–1653).

Ships in a Gale is one of Van de Velde's early masterpieces. It is filled with the drama of a churning sea on which two storm-tossed ships struggle to avoid jagged rocks that have already claimed a third vessel. The painting is not only compositionally dramatic but also endlessly engaging in its details: figures scramble up masts, haul in the sails, and hang from lines attached to the bowsprit. As birds swoop over the foaming breakers, sailors fight the waves in their desperate attempt to reach the relative safety of the rocks before drowning. The painting is in extraordinary condition and has retained every element of its original character, particularly in the physicality of the ships, figures, and rocks and the translucency of clouds, sky, and water.


Ships in a Gale is one of Van de Velde's early, and excellently preserved, masterpieces, a work filled with the drama of ships struggling to avoid menacing rocks in a storm-tossed sea.[1] A fierce wind howling across the sky and whipping the water has created huge white-capped waves that relentlessly buffet two sailing ships, one flying a Dutch flag and the other an English flag. Their crews, having taken down the ships’ upper masts and furled their sails, desperately try to ride out the storm.

The English ship to the right is in a particularly perilous state. Not only is it dangerously close to the looming, angular rocks rising from the deep, but it also flounders broadside to waves that crash violently over its gunwales. A mainsail has come unfurled and flaps wildly in the wind. Human tragedy seems imminent, particularly for the sailor who hangs precariously over the waves from a line attached to the bowsprit. In the foreground victims of the storm try desperately to save themselves. Some row through the turbulent surf in a small dinghy, while one sailor swims toward a large rock onto which two of his companions have already managed to scramble.

Van de Velde enhanced the physical and emotional drama of this scene with his fluid brushwork, cool palette, and focused light effects. Cold, steel-gray clouds seem to move before one’s eyes, flowing diagonally across the sky, their dark thick forms at once overlapping and merging with lighter cloud masses. Pockets of light stream down on the foaming whitecaps, boats, and rocks below, accentuating and enlivening their forms. With great pictorial sensitivity Van de Velde juxtaposed the English ship against dark clouds while silhouetting the Dutch ship against a lighter and calmer portion of the sky.

Simon de Vlieger (Dutch, 1600/1601 - 1653), with whom Van de Velde studied for about two years around 1650, greatly influenced the artist’s compositional ideas with his depictions of ships in distress in stormy seas near rocky coasts [fig. 1].[2] De Vlieger’s paintings, however, are more tonal in character and do not have the dramatic light effects that give Van de Velde’s painting such poignancy. Van de Velde’s ships and the ways they move in the water, moreover, are remarkably accurate, the result of the thorough training he received in the workshop of his father, Willem van de Velde the Elder (Dutch, 1611 - 1693).

Rocky coastlines do not exist in the Netherlands, and, aside from the inherent drama of ships floundering in storms near huge outcroppings, such scenes generally alluded to the danger of sailing in foreign seas. Paintings of ships in distress, moreover, often had allegorical associations referring to the uncertainties of human existence.[3] While Van de Velde’s painting would fit within this iconographic tradition, the concurrence of a Dutch and an English ship raises the possibility that this work alludes to an actual maritime event that took place during the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–1654), when a four-day storm in the Gulf of Lyon in December 1653 caused the shipwrecks of a squadron of Dutch vessels and their English prizes.[4] In the mid-1680s Van de Velde depicted this maritime disaster in a comparable painting of English and Dutch ships thrashing along a rocky coast.[5] Unlike the latter work, none of the ships in the National Gallery of Art painting can be specifically identified, but it seems probable that the same incident served as the inspiration for both scenes.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


lower center on rock: W.V.V. / 1660



Probably Proley (or Proly) collection, Paris;[1] (sale, Hôtel de Bullion by Paillet and Boileau, Paris, 20 March 1787 and days following, possibly no. 114).[2] brought to England 1823 by (Thomas Emmerson, London). Jeremiah Harman [1763-1844], Higham House, Woodford, by 1835;[3] (his estate sale, Christie & Manson, London, 17-18 May 1844, 2nd day, no. 106, as A Storm and Shipwreck); Edmund Higginson [1802-1871], Saltmarshe Castle; (his sale, Christie & Manson, London, 4-6 June 1846, no. 218, as A Storm and Shipwreck); purchased by Brown.[4] Edmund Higginson, Saltmarshe Castle; (his sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 16 June 1860, no. 32, as A Storm and Shipwreck); purchased by Turner.[5] Edward Sholto, 3rd baron Penrhyn [1864-1927], London; (sale, Sotheby's, London, 3 December 1924, no. 79, as Rocky Coast with choppy sea and shipping). possibly with (Hand, London); sold to private collection, United States, possibly Samuel Borchard [d. 1930], New York; his estate; (his estate sale, Parke-Bernet, New York, 9 January 1947, no. 38, as A Shipwreck in a Storm off a Rocky Coast);[6] private collection, South America;[7] (Otto Nauman, New York); purchased 16 June 2000 by NGA.

Exhibition History
Five Centuries of Marine Paintings, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1942, no. 35.

Water, Wind, and Waves: Marine Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2018, unnumbered brochure.

Technical Summary

The painting is executed on a thin, oak panel[1] consisting of three boards with horizontal grain, which are joined horizontally. The top plank is thicker than the other two making up the support. The reverse of the panel is beveled at the edges. The panel was prepared for painting with a medium thick, creamy white ground layer. A brown imprimatura exists beneath the water. In general the painting was executed in thin layers of paint with little texture. The paint in the sky was applied with a relatively large brush. The boats were executed in a more exacting fashion with smaller brushes. The highlights are generally executed with thicker paint showing low impasto.

The X-radiographs show many changes including several sailboats that are much larger in scale than the current boats, as well as some figures and a different sky.

The condition of the painting is excellent. Inpainting scattered throughout the composition seems to cover slight stains, wood grain, and tiny losses. The inpainting is concentrated along the edges and the upper join. The varnish is even and fairly clear.


[1] The characterization of the wood is based on visual examination only.

Smith, John. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters. 9 vols. London, 1829-1842: 6(1835):327-328, no. 26.
Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. 8 vols. Translated by Edward G. Hawke. London, 1907-1927: 7(1923):possibly 108, no. 427.
Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. Beschreibendes und kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke der hervorragendsten holländischen Maler des XVII. Jahrhunderts. 10 vols. Esslingen and Paris, 1907-1928: 7(1918):possibly 335, no. 427.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. Loan Exhibition of Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. Exh. cat. Detroit Institute of Arts. Detroit, 1925: 14, no. 35.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R., and Francis Waring Robinson. Five Centuries of Marine Painting. Exh. cat. Detroit Institute of Arts, 1942: 14, no. 35.
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: 2:1036-1038, no. 391, repro.
Beer, Gerlinde de. Ludolf Backhuysen (1630 - 1708): sein Leben und Werk. Zwolle, 2002: 182, fig. 236.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Clouds, ice, and Bounty: The Lee and Juliet Folger Collection of Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Paintings. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2020: 136, 138, fig. 1.
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rocky coast
sea seascape
meteorological phenomena
storm at sea
revoution +Anglo-Dutch Wars
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