Lot 32
  • 32

Willem van de Velde the Elder

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 USD
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  • Willem van de Velde the Elder
  • Dutch harbor in a calm with small vessels inshore and beached among fishermen, a kaag at anchor, a states yacht and men o'war offshore: a "penschilderij"
  • signed lower center W.V.Velde
  • pen, ink and oil on panel
  • 18 7/8 x 25 3/8 inches


Anonymous sale ("Property of a Gentleman"), Amsterdam, Sotheby's, 6 May 1998, lot 32;
There purchased by the present collector.


New York,  Luxembourg & Dayan Gallery, Grisaille, Part II, 7 November 2011-14 January 2012.


Sotheby's Amsterdam Magazine, June-August 1998 no. 3;
Scott Reyburn, 'Art Market', in Antiques Trade Gazette, 23 May 1998, p. 26, reproduced; 
Grisaille, exhibition catalogue, New York 2011, pp. 72-73, reproduced, p. 145.


The following condition report has been provided by Simon Parkes of Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc. 502 East 74th St. New York, NY 212-734-3920, simonparkes@msn.com, an independent restorer who is not an employee of Sotheby's. This work is in lovely condition. The panel is made from two pieces of oak joined horizontally through the center of the painting. There are no reinforcements to this original join. Under ultraviolet light, one can see very isolated retouches in the sky. There is a slightly more concentrated group of retouches at the top of the masts on the far right, and there is also a collection of retouches in the water in the center towards the horizon. The details throughout are un-abraded, and the condition is certainly notable.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

This composition in black and white, a remarkable fusion of painting and drawing, is usually described as a pen-painting (after the Dutch penschilderij).  The technique probably derives from the work of Hendrick Goltzius, but for the Mannerist painter it was a bravura demonstration of technical virtuosity, a means of astounding his viewers with his extraordinary dexterity, while for Willem van de Velde the Elder, it was more a means to an end.  Over the course of his long career he made relatively few traditional oil paintings in color, preferring instead the pen-painting, and he viewed himself primarily as a draftsman, signing his letters “Scheepsteickenaer” (literally ship’s draftsman).  He spent most of his professional life aboard ships, recording on paper the events that passed before his eyes.  His pen-paintings were in a sense translations of those shipboard drawings into more permanent works of remarkable clarity and directness, which were sought after and highly valued by his contemporaries.

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.