The life of Willem van de Velde the Elder, who ranks with his son the younger Willem as one of the finest of European marine artists, is now so well known that only the brief outlines need be given here.
He was born at Leiden in 1611, and with a naval captain for a father and a brother who was skipper of a merchantman he not surprisingly developed a taste for the sea at an early age. He is known to have accompanied his father on a militia transport as a young boy, and there may have been other voyages as well. He married in Leiden in 1631, and in 1633 his wife gave birth to their second son, the painter Willem van de Velde the Younger. In the mid-163Os the family settled in Amsterdam.
Van de Velde’s earliest surviving drawing dates from 1638, but by then he had probably been working as an artist for some time. In 1640 several engravings of his drawings were published, among them a portrait of the Aemilia, the flagship of Maarten Harpertsz. Tromp, and a scene of the Battle of Dunkirk (1638), so he seems to have made his mark as a marine draughtsman fairly soon after moving to his new home
The Van de Veldes, father and son, worked as a team for much of their lives, with the father’s drawings and ship portraits serving as a basis for the son’s paintings. The latter always interpreted his father’s studies very freely, and there is no known drawing which was copied literally in a painting. Although Arnold Houbraken states that the elder Van de Velde also took up the brush in later years, no convincing evidence has ever been found to support this. What he did do was work up his own studies into pen paintings, a technique that will be discussed below.
Van de Velde’s drawings and pen paintings of historic maritime events are based either on eye-witness accounts or on his own first-hand experience, for he took to observing sea battles from his own galliot or from a vessel lent to him by the government. In this way he could follow the manoeuvres and individual actions as they developed, and record them in drawings made on the spot. It was clearly a risky way of working, and definitely not for the faint-hearted, but it suited his restless, adventurous spirit. His own graphic description of the Battle of Scheveningen (Ter Heide) of 1653 was that the sight of the English and Dutch fleets pounding each other was like ‘looking into a fiery furnace’ (‘of men in een gloeyenden oven sagh’).