PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF J.E. SAFRA
This panel is one of a group of less than 30 pen-paintings, mainly dating from the 1640s. Most are set along the shoreline and depict small private vessels, as well as the fishermen, longshoremen and fish sellers that depend on their catch. They are smaller, more intimate scenes than the later, grander subjects that make up the majority of his pen-paintings. Other similar works from the mid-1640s include A Kaag Ashore Near a Pier with Ships and Other Vessels (1648?), Kaags Close to the Shore in a Busy Scene Near Den Helder with a Ship Passing (before 1644), both National Maritime Museum, Greenwich and A Weyschuit Lying by a Sea Wall with Other Fishing Boats (circa 1645) with Edward Speelman, London, 1949.1
The present work is executed in a remarkable combination of pen, ink and brush over a thin layer of lead white; below is a neutral ground covering an oak panel (Van de Velde’s larger pen-paintings are on a canvas support). We know directly from the artist’s contemporary, Pieter Blaeu, that it was necessary to take special care with the preparations of the panel because of Van de Velde’s unusual technique. According to a letter from Blaeu to Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici, who was negotiating to buy a pen-painting, it was necessary to allow the ground to dry for a longer than normal period, two to three months, “since otherwise the ground would not have hardened sufficiently to withstand the sharpness of the quill.”2
Examining the panel itself, we can see that the foreground is drawn in a deep black ink with a thick quill, so that these elements of the composition have great clarity and intensity. For the delicate lines of the sky and clouds as well as the background, Van de Velde used a finer quill and a paler ink. In places he also appears to have used the point of a brush to fill in the background. The result is that he effectively creates the sense of recession without losing any detail, even in the distant buildings of the town beyond.
While the fortified town in the distance is clearly defined, no one to date has been able to definitively identify the location of this composition. The topography and the types of vessels suggest a site on the Zuiderzee while the fortifications might point more toward the island of Texel, which was used as an anchorage for the Dutch navy. The figure group in the lower left corner reappears in a larger pen-painting of The Brederode Under Sail Leaving a Crowded Shore in the Vlie, 9 June 1645, in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
What seems surprising at first is that Van de Velde’s pen-paintings are quite different in character than his drawings. The latter fall into two categories: rapid sketches made on shipboard when the artist accompanied the Dutch and later English fleets on maneuvers and in battle; and more finished “ship portraits,” exact and nautically correct works of specific vessels. Both types of drawing are more tonal in nature and lack the strict linearity that we see here. One of the exceptions is a drawing recently attributed to Willem van de Velde, A View of Dunkirk Harbor, Probably During the Blockade by the Dutch in 1639, now in the Clement C. Moore collection.3
1. M. S. Robinson, Van de Velde: a catalogue of the paintings of the elder and the younger Willem van de Velde, Greenwich 1990, vol. I, pp. 98-99 and 101-102, cat. nos. 283 and 411 and pp. 99-100, cat. no. 286.
2. D. Freedberg et al., “Paintings or Prints? Experiens Sillemans and the Origins of the Grisaille Sea-piece: Notes on a Rediscovered Technique,” in Print Quarterly, vol. I, 1984, pp. 151-153.
3. See J. Shoaf Turner, Rembrandt's World: Dutch Drawings from the Clement C. Moore Collection, exhibition catalogue, New York 2012, pp. 112-113, cat. no. 46, reproduced.
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