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Jan van de Velde II: The Printmaker as Creative Artist in the Early Dutch Republic

Robert L. Fucci [Columbia University]
David E. Finley Fellow, 2013 – 2016

fucci-2015-2016

Jan van de Velde II after Pieter Molijn, The Star of Kings, a Night Piece, 1630. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

In the final year of his apprenticeship, Jan van de Velde II (c. 1593 – 1641) received a letter from his namesake father, a famous calligrapher whose writing manuals were popular across Europe, urging his son not to hesitate to create his own designs rather than work after others or in imitation of them. “The art of invention,” he wrote aphoristically, “is better than copying or following.” Artistic invention, as the elder artist well knew, had been primarily the domain of painters. Not only did the younger Van de Velde take his father’s advice to heart; he has the distinction of being one of the first professional printmakers in the early modern era to initiate a career generating and marketing his own designs. This did not stop him from also working after others from time to time.

With hundreds of designs to his credit, many of which were printed in substantial numbers, there is hardly a museum print collection in the world that does not possess a considerable number of impressions by Jan van de Velde II. Despite the prolific nature of his inventions and their abundant survival (or perhaps partly because of their numbers), his works have received little comprehensive study beyond standard cataloguing.

Van de Velde’s prints reveal a drive not just to invent but also to innovate. His approach to landscape in its purest form, lacking any narrative or ostensible iconographic content, reshaped the genre by incorporating realistic or recognizably local surroundings. In both their formal and theoretical concerns, his experiments with landscape, along with those of some of his colleagues in Haarlem, set the initial terms for what would soon become one of the most popular genres in the Dutch Republic. In his early years, shortly after the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609 – 1621) established Dutch independence, Jan van de Velde’s innovative landscape prints proved to be highly marketable. The primacy of the print medium in this regard has often been cast, in the many histories treating the rise of Dutch landscape, as an early form of market testing for paintings. This idea plays on the value and status distinctions between paintings and prints but fails to account for the original context of landscape prints as objects often intended to be viewed in series as a discrete group of images.

Early bound volumes of Dutch landscape prints from the seventeenth century that feature Van de Velde’s works, though rare today, reveal a carefully balanced negotiation between the clearly imaginary, the plausibly realistic, and the recognizably local. Van de Velde’s novel landscape formulas are better understood as print productions that serve a particular type of viewing different from that of painted display. Discursive organizational patterns of scenes depicting noncontiguous seasons or obviously disconnected locales, for example, belie any simulated journey from one place to the next. Rather, the artist’s display of invention and his insistently creative reiterations using a nonnarrative landscape format served (as some title pages suggest) both to please the eye and to inspire painters, rather than follow them. Van de Velde took advantage of the print medium’s historical function as artistic source material to advocate for printmaking as a creative activity in its own right.

Van de Velde’s quest for originality in printmaking occurred at a
moment when the relative convenience offered by etching increasingly attracted painters. Trained specifically in engraving, a notably difficult craft requiring long years of apprenticeship, Van de Velde nevertheless chose the more easily mastered process of etching for a large number of his works, especially his landscapes. The fluidity and expressive quality of his etched lines marked a sharp contrast with most previous printmaking practices by revealing much more of the graphic “hand” at work. Etching had been (and for many artists continued to be) primarily a means to an end, a convenient way of incising a plate whose looser facture should be disguised rather than left visible. At the same time, Van de Velde explicitly preferred engraving for a number of works that quickly became celebrated as masterpieces of the technique, such as The Star of Kings, a Night Piece (1630). These works in the so-called manière noire rely on close-packed, finely wrought lines to attain both subtle modulations of tone and dramatic lighting effects. The style is highly effective in engraving and could not be achieved easily in etching. Some of Van de Velde’s dark-manner engravings are his own inventions, while others are after the designs of his close colleagues. In all cases, however, these prints constitute original works that stand as finished products in the print medium. This distinguishes them from both earlier and later experiments with printed tone (such as the mezzotint) that typically sought to reproduce paintings.

Van de Velde was arguably the leading printmaker of his day, one who could both etch and engrave. In effect, he rhetoricized both techniques by emphasizing the visual qualities specific to each. This divergence in formal appearance also led to a lexical distinction between the two techniques that was quickly adopted by writers on art who were among his broad and enthusiastic audience.

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