Oud Holland

Review of: 'Van de Velde & son' (2020)

November 2022

JOHN BEZOLD

Remmelt Daalder, Van de Velde & son. Marine painters, Leiden [Primavera], 2020

The Van de Veldes fall into a long tradition of Netherlandish dynasties of artists, some of which then extended in subsequent centuries; often the father was the master artist, and the son(s) the pupil(s).1 Like many Dutch family painting dynasties, wherein one member’s work most often outshines the others, the Van de Veldes are no exception; at least, that seems to be the case when assessing the Van de Velde family historiographically.2 It is precisely this inter-family cooperation, and competition, which Remmelt Daalder examines in his study of the business of art production of the Van de Velde family. Daalder’s central aim within Van de Velde & son. Marine painters – a published trade edition of his 2013 dissertation – is to rectify the traditional perception that the father, Willem van de Velde I (c. 1611-1693), outshined his son Willem van de Velde II (1633-1707), both during their lifetimes and thereafter. To do so, he recognises the father was as skilled in his pen-painting technique, as his son was at painting, and so places the two on equal footing, whereas prior scholars assumed the son to have been more ‘advanced’ in skill and thus execution of his paintings, in relation to the paintings of his father. Daalder also includes the other Van de Velde sons who were artists, Adriaen (1636-1672) and Cornelis (1674-1714), to assess the full family dynasty of artists, yet they play a very minor role in his study as they were not focused on marine painting.3 The focus on the two Willems is reflected in the book’s title: ‘Van de Velde & Son’.

It is divided into 14 chapters with six appendixes, most of which are transcribed archival materials unearthed by Daalder during his research, including several letters written by Willem van de Velde the Elder, and a probate inventory of his son, Cornelis. The result is a fascinating, well-researched and delightful read – presenting decades of erudition on the part of Daalder, who was a curator at the Amsterdam Maritime Museum (Het Scheepvaartsmusuem) in Amsterdam, from 1990-2014. The book is formatted and of similar size to a specialty fashion or design magazine, with matte, slightly thick paper stock. It is easily held in the hands, travels well, is set in a classic, easy-reading serifed typeface — making use of its size for its plethora of included images, such as photographs of seventeenth-century letters and inventories and many drawings and paintings by the Van de Veldes, and others.

Cover of: Van de Velde & son. Marine painters
Middle left: fig 1., Willem van de Velde the Elder, The battle of Dunkirk, 1659, ink on canvas, 123 x 85 cm., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, SK-A-1362

Middle right: fig 2., Jan Griffier, View of Greenwich and the Thames, late-1600s, oil on canvas, 84.5 x 135.5 cm., National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Right: fig. 3, Willem van de Velde the Younger, A Ship on the high seas caught by a squall ('The Gust’), c. 1680, oil on canvas, 77 × w 63.5 cm., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, SK-A-1848

The Elder Van de Velde set up his studio in Amsterdam in the early-1630s, and his son, who would eventually come to rival, equal and later worked in tandem alongside his father, was born shortly thereafter. Daalder’s primary concern is not to decipher or attribute the works of father and son, but to instead dissect the ways that they worked together on their output, and how their collaboration allowed the best skills of each to be used to their joint advantage. Because the Elder and Younger Willems were active in the mediums of paintings, prints and drawings – Daalder could call upon the artworks and archives scattered in Continental museums, and private collections. The book, therefore, makes use of its 14 chapters in a way aligning in a linear manner, with the lives of the Van de Velde family’s many members – focussing on Willem the Elder and Younger – their social networks, and their commissions, as pertaining to their main places of residence: Leiden, Amsterdam and London.

As Daalder observes within his introduction, the artworks created by the Van de Veldes are often used in historical literature as illustrations of naval battles, and rightfully so, as the Elder and Younger Willem indeed portrayed scenes as they saw and drew them, from aboard Dutch and English ships. He states their works often explicitly denote – certainly in the case of many drawings – which battle scene is portrayed in each work. Therefore, Daalder recognises that the Van de Veldes’ works were nearly always studied by prior scholars as depicting "historical records" glorifying famous ships, and scenes – often on commission of those ships’ captains, even as he remains focused on studying, the “history behind the works of art themselves”.4

As with many artists emanating from the Low Countries active in England throughout the seventeenth century; much of the existing research on the Van de Veldes’ oeuvres – but less so their biographies – has been undertaken by art historians based in the UK. The most prominent example, concerning the Van de Veldes, is Michael S. Robinson (1910-1999); a British art historian who, from 1947-1970, was ‘Keeper of Pictures’ at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. During the course of his career, Robinson catalogued the (more than 600) drawings by Willem van de Velde held in the collection of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, in Rotterdam, and those in Greenwich’s National Maritime Museum (more than 1.450) and published a monograph on the painted oeuvres by Van de Velde the Elder and the Younger.5 While of incredible use to curators and connoisseurs, these publications are not the departure point for Daalder since he is not concerned with reconstructing their oeuvre. Nor is his focus on correcting any of Robinson’s attributions. He uses them as a starting point only in the sense that he points to them to as evidence of the Van de Veldes’ prolific art production.

A new exhibition, 'The Van de Veldes: Greenwich, art and the sea', will open at the Queen's House in London on 2 March 2023, lasting until 14 January 2024. The nearly year-long show will see the entire collection of drawings from the National Maritime Museum’s collection digitalised and published online – bringing the many paintings and drawings in its collection by Van de Velde and son to a wider, global audience, and allow for a more nuanced appreciation, by scholars, connoisseurs and maritime historians. The exhibition will owe much of its new research on the Van de Velde family and their art to the innovative work of Daalder, just as Daalder stands on the shoulders of Robinson. In the first chapter of study, Daalder clearly relays his affection for the scholarship of Robinson, such as when he states of his work: “The Van de Veldes were artists whose work can be judged by its artistic qualities. But they were also a family business and brand, to use a modern term. And yet we do not have a current picture of how that family business and brand evolved. However… and above all through the pioneering work of Michael S. Robinson, who devoted a greater part of his professional life to the gathering of information, we do have an imposing pile of building blocks for a company history of the ‘Firm Van de Velde & Son’.”Daalder himself succeeds in using the building blocks left behind by Robinson to create the first published overview of that history.

The first chapter examines the existing scholarship centred on the Van de Veldes, such as that of Robinson, H. P. Baard as well as Horst Gerson, to ground the study, and the reader. Chapter two draws the distinction between the primary sources that Daalder utilised for his research, and he takes time to note the extraordinary number of drawings that exist in various museum collections, like the two already mentioned in Rotterdam and Greenwich by Robinson, and explains that hundreds more must be in other, private collections.7 He continues by recounting that the drawings are most useful for their, often accurate portrayals of battles and the vessels that had participated. The paintings themselves give the most insight into the family’s business. This is because they can be traced through time via their provenances, as well as the many archival documents mentioning them throughout succeeding centuries, which remain in existence today. Concerning archival documents, Daalder notes that many are still coming forth, such as those in the Medici archives in Florence, and mentions the few letters that still exist from both father and son.

Chapter three is a welcomed addition to the existing research on the family, which traces their origins in Leiden, and the prior generations of the Van de Velde family’s origins in Flanders – Willem the Elder’s father (1550-1615), to be precise, and his family’s later establishment, in Leiden. This chapter is useful due to the extensive archival documentation that has been cited. Pulled together, it forms a rather detailed biographical sketch of the father of Willem the Elder.

The fourth through sixth chapters discuss the migration to, and maturation of, Willem the Elder’s family within Amsterdam – where Willem the Younger was born, and where the Elder’s career as an artist blossomed in its early fruition. Daalder notes the networks that Willem the Elder was embedded in, and how he captured the market for maritime painting in the city as one of few artists active in Amsterdam who was specialised in the subject. Most interesting to anyone with an interest in the paintings’ technique and materiality will be this chapter’s unfolding of how Willem the Elder developed his pen-painting (fig. 1) process, and the contemporary references to it.8 As Daalder states, these pen-paintings were highly sought out during the Elder’s lifetime for their longevity, ease of cleaning and rugged portability.9 The fifth chapter surveys the market on the part of buyers and artists of maritime paintings in Amsterdam,  whereas the sixth finally introduces Willem the Younger as an artist working alongside his father, in his studio. Here Daalder also describes the different addresses the family lived in Amsterdam and the nature of the family’s art studio, as well as the absence of any known, non-family students. Daalder goes on to relay the extramarital affairs of Willem the Elder – stating that he had several of them, which caused problems in his marriage and family life. Simultaneously Daalder takes care to explain how the reputation of an artist in social networks affected their patrons.10 Within the seventh chapter, Daalder traces the relations of, mostly Willem the Elder as related to his contacts with sea-faring captains of the navy, and the time he spent aboard their ships – which serves to introduce the possibility for Daalder’s study to branch beyond the Republic.

The book’s second half is nearly entirely devoted to exploring the new terrain of research that his study treads, namely the machinations by Willem the Elder to secure commissions in Italy and Sweden, as well as his eventual move to, and time spent in, England. Chapter eight takes the reader to Sweden and introduces the relationship Willem the Elder had with contacts in Scandinavia. It is mostly centred on Carl Gustaf Wrangel (1613-1676), who was the Governor of (Swedish) Pomerania, and owned the Skokloster Castle, North of Stockholm, wherein he housed his – still existent, in-situ collection. Daalder spends much time reconstructing the various efforts on the part of Willem the Elder to secure commissions from Wrangel, such as in of one (of two) surviving letters written by Van de Velde the Elder. In one letter, from 1661 or 1662, he tells Wrangel he would, “…wish to be given the honour of making a piece, even if it is to be 20 to 25 feet long. I can do that, and have experience in drawing on canvases that can be cleaned and abide water, and in other respects, too, are just as good as a painting.”11 Daalder then explains the tangled web of correspondences between Wrangel and the artist Simon de Vlieger (1601-1653), and the Amsterdam-based artist and all-around social butterfly art-dealer-agent, Michel Le Blon (1587-1658). Both Vlieger and Le Blon had close connections with Wrangel and were his main conduit to the Republic for matters of acquiring its art. This chapter’s main purpose is to acquaint the reader with the behind-the-scenes lengths Willem the Elder took (in trying to) secure commissions, as well as introduce Willem the Younger to potential patrons, as an artist who could produce paintings, made after drawings by his father.

The ninth chapter follows in a similar vein from the proceeding chapter and introduces the Van de Veldes’ trials and tribulations with seventeenth-century Italian collectors who were, above all, very much interested in acquiring the pen-paintings of Willem the Elder. Again we are introduced to another intermediary, who corresponded with locals and the Republic-based Van de Veldes, in the form of Pieter Blaeu (1637-1706), the son of the famous publisher Joan Blaeu, and a publisher and bookseller in his own right. He also served as an agent for Cosimo de’ Medici (1642-1723), who was fond of the Dutch Republic. Cosimo visited several times – even meeting Willem Van de Velde the Elder at his studio in Amsterdam in December 1667. Daalder goes on to discuss Cosimo’s uncle, Leopold de’ Medici (1617-1675), and how they both held unique positions among Italian collectors of Dutch art, having collected not only work by Dutch artists who had visited and worked within Italy, but also, those who had not. In this instance the work of, Willem the Elder, whom Leopold had commissioned; an apt expression of wealth, and social-geographical reach. Chapter ten takes the reader to territory that will be most familiar to both scholars and admirers of the work of the Van de Velde father and son artists: England.

As Daalder informs readers; it’s not known when the Elder and Younger Willem chose to move to England, but he explains how Charles II actively encouraged emigration from the Republic. He dates their arrival as somewhere in the years 1672-1673, and traces circles of artists who had also worked in England – among them Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), Daniël Mytens (1590-1647/8), Adriaen Hanneman (1604-1671), Jan Lievens (1607-1674) and Peter Lely (1618-1680). Daalder observes that England’s art market was not anywhere near the maturation of that in the Republic during the same period, and that within the time after the regicide of Charles I (1600-1649), up until 1672, the number of Dutch painters who were actively working in England had significantly shrunk.12 Willem the Elder and the Younger were perfectly positioned to dominate their genre.

The last three chapters – 11-13 – focus on the Van de Velde family’s move to England. Daalder discusses the day-to-day events of the family’s life there, and relays that Willem the Elder moved to London with his wife, the Younger Willem, and the rest of his family – for a total of ten Van de Veldes, who all resided in the Queen’s House (fig. 2), in Greenwich. Daalder surmises that Willem the Elder and his wife seem to have made up, and stayed together despite her husband’s previously described marital transgressions. The family would continue living at the Queen’s House in Greenwich until 1688’s Glorious Revolution, which saw the ascension of Willem III of Orange Nassau (1650-1702) and his wife Mary II Stuart (1662-1694) to the English throne. A change of court meant a change of fashion; and the Van de Veldes’ art services to the Crown, as its court painters, were capriciously deemed no longer needed.13 Their removal from English court, left father and son – and thus their dependents – without the generous annual remuneration that they had grown accustomed to, which was paid on top of the amounts they received for the individual artworks they created for Charles II and James (1633-1701).

The art portraying English battles and naval scenes that were created by Willem van de Velde the Elder, and Younger (fig. 3), is heavily researched territory – though, again, often from a maritime perspective, or from a biographical one – by UK-based scholars and historians.14 And so Daalder gives his own spin on this period of the Van de Veldes’ family firm, of producing art in England, by tying in references and anecdotes of the connections that the family had maintained in the Republic. Such as a charming anecdote about Willem the Elder making conversation with Pieter Blaeu on the streets of Amsterdam, during a visit home in 1674, discussing his good fortune in England. Blaeu ran into Willem the Elder, who apparently was well dressed, wearing a fine wig – connotating financial success abroad – which Blaeu later relayed in a letter to a friend: “I would have scarcely have believed this had he not been dressed in very fine clothes and also wearing a fairly well-made wig. In short, too all appearance he lacked for nothing.”15 Daalder goes into great detail about the web of social networks the family had established in London during the 1670s and onward, which would help maintain their business’ viability after the events of 1688. Lastly, Daalder goes on to discuss the continuation of the family’s business activities – now well beyond the incubation and isolation enjoyed at court under Charles II and James – after the death of its patriarch Willem the Elder, in 1693, and how it maintained its operation thereafter. Only in this last chapter are Cornelis and his work mentioned in passing when he describes Cornelis’ paintings as being, “rather stiff renderings of the same subject that his father depicted far more freely.”16 He then explains that Willem the Younger and Cornelis Van de Velde continued their family’s business in London from Westminster, until Cornelis died in 1714. Cornelis sometimes assisted his brother’s painting production, but mostly traded in paintings.

The final chapter summarises the previous 13. It ends by expounding on the two ways that maritime-themed art produced by Dutch artists had, until Daalder’s book, been studied: firstly from the perspective of art historians, who are mainly concerned with the effects of an artist or a grouping of artists upon a particular genre's stylistic evolution, with artists’ iconography or working methods. Secondly, from the vantage point of maritime historians, who tend to study the drawings and the paintings of the Van de Veldes as factual illustrations (often rightly, or, to their own detriment) of major events occurring at sea. While the art historians’ approach will undoubtedly lead to a narrower framework that focuses on the artist and the work of their colleagues; the non-art historians’ approach will make use of a wider lens through which to view art, often at the expense of that art, and artist. In his book, Daalder introduces a novel, third approach, combining a cultural-historical approach, allowing for an assessment of the artwork, events surrounding it and its production. As this well-written and researched book by Daalder has shown, doing so gives rise to a new type of research result, enlivening the history of a family business of producing drawings, and paintings.

John Bezold
PhD Candidate
University of Amsterdam

NOTES:

1 R. Ekkart, ‘Dutch family ties: Painter families in seventeenth-century Holland’, in Family ties: On art production, kinship patterns and connections (1600-1800), K. Brosens, L. Kelchtermans and K. Van Der Stighelen (eds)., Turnhout 2012, p. 77.

2 D. Keuning and J. Bezold, ‘Gerard, Lina, & Jan Gratama als schilders en tekenaars’, Eigenbouwer no. 16 (Nov. 2022), pp. 22-34.

3 B. Cornelis and M. Schapelhouman, Adriaen van de Velde: Dutch master of landscape, London/Amsterdam 2016.

4 R. Daalder, Van de Velde & son. Marine painters, Leiden 2020, pp. 7, 15.

5 M. S. Robinson, Van de Velde drawings. A catalogue of drawings in the National Maritime Museum made by the Elder and Younger Willem van de Velde, 2 vols., Cambridge 1958-1974; M. S. Robinson, Van de Velde. A catalogue of the paintings of the Elder and the Younger Willem van de Velde, 2 vols., London 1990; M. S. Robinson, Van de Velde. The paintings of the Willem van de Veldes, 2 vols., London 1990.

6 Daalder 2020 (note 4), p. 16.

7 Daalder 2020, pp. 19, 23, 25.

8 Daalder 2020, p. 49. “He worked on a surface with a preparatory layer coloured to resemble vellum. This was done by applying a ground consisting of an initial brown layer topped with a white one that was a mixture of lead white and chalk. It was a ground that took a long time to dry. In 1672 Pieter Blaeu noted that Van de Velde told him that it ‘takes two or three months to prepare, that is to say apply the underlying colour, otherwise the ground isn’t hard enough to take a drawing done with a sharp pen.’ The scene was then applied with the brush and pen in a special ink over a graphite underdrawing. The ink was made of animal glue and lampblack. Van de Velde used the brush to paint the clouds and shadows and followed this up by filling in the details with pen.”

9 Daalder 2020, p. 50. “…a layer of varnish was applied to preserve the drawing so that it could be cleaned with a sponge if necessary.”

10 Daalder 2020, pp. 76-77. “The picture of the father that emerges from several written sources is of a philanderer who cared little for marital vows… Some scholars seem to have been embarrassed by Willem van de Velde’s marriage.”

11 Daalder 2020, pp. 107-108.

12 Daalder 2020, p. 54; S. Karst, Painting in a country without painters: The Netherlandish contribution to the emergence of the British school of painting, 1520-1720 (University of Amsterdam, PhD Dissertation, 2021).

13 Daalder 2020, pp. 164-166, 178-180.

14 L. Preston, Sea and naval painters of the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, London 1947; B. Buckeridge, ‘An essay towards an English school of painters’, in R. De Piles, The art of painting and the lives and characters of above 300 of the most eminent painters translated from the French, London 1706; G. Vertue, Anecdotes of painting in England; with some account of the principal artist; and incidental notes on other art; collected by the late Mr. George Vertue; and now digested and published from the original MSS. By Mr. Horace Walpole, London 1762; second edition, 1862.

15 Daalder 2020, pp. 143, 217 n11, n12.

16 J. C. Weyerman, De levens-beschryvingen der Nederlandsche konst-schilders en konst-schilderessen, vol. 3, The Hague 1729, p. 386; Daalder 2020, p. 180. 

CITE AS: 

John Bezold, ‘Van de Velde & son. Marine painters’, Oud Holland Reviews, November 2022.