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.
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.
I would like to thank Pien Brocades Zaalberg and Lelia Packer, former interns in the department of northern baroque painting, for their assistance in preparing this entry.
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.
These paintings are sometimes referred to as grisailles. See, for example, Michael Strang Robinson, Van de Velde: A Catalogue of Paintings of the Elder and Younger Willem van de Velde, vol. 1 (London, 1990).
The first artist to employ the pen-painting technique was
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.
The angular, choppy character of the waves is remarkably similar to that seen in Van de Velde’s prints from the 1630s and 1640s, which further suggests an early date for this painting. For more information on these prints, see P. Haverkorn van Rijsewijk, “Willem van de Velde de Oude: zijn leven en zijn werk,” Oud-Holland 16 (1898): 70–75; see also Willem van de Velde the Elder’s etching The “Aemilia,” Admiralty Ship of Holland, c. 1639 (Museum Mr. Simon van Gijn, Dordrecht), in George S. Keyes, Mirror of Empire: Dutch Marine Art of the Seventeenth Century (Minneapolis, 1990), 318–319, no. 121. By the mid-1650s Van de Velde was creating works such as The Dutch Ship “Oosterwijk” under Sail near the Shore in Two Positions, 1654, oil on panel, National Maritime Museum, London, illustrated in Westby Percival-Prescott, The Art of the Van de Veldes: Paintings and Drawings by the Great Dutch Marine Artists and Their English Followers (London, 1982), 57, no. 10.
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.
Michael Strang Robinson, Van de Velde: A Catalogue of the Paintings of the Elder and Younger Willem van de Velde, 2 vols. (London, 1990), 1:55, no. 644.
I would like to thank Friso Lammertse (correspondence of February 14, 1997) for his observations about the decorations on the taffrails of these ships.
As is characteristic of his early pen paintings, Van de Velde has here prepared an oak panel with a white chalk
The layer or layers used to prepare the support to hold the paint.
For an excellent assessment of his general technique for creating these works, see Westby Percival-Prescott, “The Art of the Van de Veldes: Aims Methods and Materials,” in The Art of the Van de Veldes: Paintings and Drawings by the Great Dutch Marine Artists and Their English Followers (London, 1982), 23–25.
These printed lines were first discovered by Bart J. C. Devolder, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Painting Conservation at the National Gallery of Art in 2007. The distinctions he drew between printed and drawn lines were confirmed by Kimberly Schenck, head of paper conservation at the National Gallery of Art.
See David Freedberg, Aviva Burnstock, and Alan Phenix, “Paintings or Prints? Experiens Sillemans and the Origins of the Grisaille Sea-piece: Notes on a Rediscovered Technique,” Print Quarterly 1, no. 3 (September 1984): 149–172.
It is also possible that Van de Velde added ink washes to help model the composition, particularly in the sky, but no traces of washes were found during the conservation of the painting.
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
Kristin de Ghetaldi, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Painting Conservation at the National Gallery of Art, used these raised lines to re-create design elements that had been completely abraded. Working under high-powered magnification, she reconstructed these lines by using fine-tipped pigment pens. I would like to thank Kristin for the many enlightening discussions I had with her after the discovery of these raised lines.
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.
I am very grateful to Ad Stijnman for our discussions about this issue and for his careful assessment of this material. His comments, dated September 22, 2013, are in the curatorial files at the National Gallery of Art.
Stijnman noted that there is no discoloration of the white ground underneath the ink, something that would have occurred if the lines had been made with an ink in an oil-based medium.
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.
Van de Velde probably used this technique in other comparable pen paintings on panel from the 1650s, such as Dutch Ships Coming to Anchor, 1654, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (38-1657), illustrated in George S. Keyes, Mirror of Empire: Dutch Marine Art of the Seventeenth Century (Minneapolis, 1990), 48, fig. 34, or the closely related painting in Edinburgh (see detail photograph of raised lines on Dutch Ships near the Coast during conservation of the panel).
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
lower right: W.V.Velde
(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; gift 1994 to NGA.
- 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.
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. The panel was prepared with a white ground. The white ground and the white paint layer on top of it 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.
 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).
 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).
Related IconClass Terms
- sea seascape
- revoution +Anglo-Dutch Wars
- warfare +naval force
- naval force
- merchant shipping
- sailing ship
- shipbuilding industry