The unveiling of a ‘new’, or perhaps I should say previously unknown pen painting by Willem van de Velde the Elder is a special event. It is missing from the major survey of the works of Willem van de Velde, father and son, that Michael S. Robinson published in 1990. The View of the IJ from the Old City Inn in Amsterdam
, which art dealer Rob Kattenburg discovered in a private collection in the United Kingdom, is even more exceptional for being an early, rare work. It helps to clarify our still rather hazy view of the first few years of Van de Velde’s career. In addition to being a virtuoso draughtsman he was an artist who occupied a key position in the development of the seascape.
It was probably around 1634 that Willem van de Velde the Elder moved with his wife and child from Leiden to Amsterdam. That child, still a baby, was also called Willem, and would later become famous as the celebrated marine painter Willem van de Velde the Younger. Two years later the equally talented son Adriaen was added to the family. The father, Willem van de Velde the Elder, was a ‘ship draughtsman’, an occupation that offered little security, however virtuoso his drawings were. On top of that, he was not the only one trying to earn a living as a maritime artist at the time.
In order to carve out his own niche on the art market he struck out in a new direction. The buzzword nowadays would be ‘innovation’. Van de Velde brought a new kind of artwork onto the market: the maritime pen painting. This enabled him to offer collectors something that barely existed at the time: a large, durable drawing that could be hung permanently on the wall. It was not entirely new, for Hendrick Goltzius had made several pen paintings at the end of the sixteenth century. Whether Van de Velde knew them is not certain, but he could have read about them in Karel van Mander’s Schilder-boeck
. At a certain moment Goltzius switched from vellum to a larger support, as described by Van Mander.
After this Goltzius got the idea of drawing with a pen on canvases primed or prepared with oil paint; for however large the parchments he felt that they were still much too small for his grand intentions and talent. So he did it this way: he drew with the pen on a fairly large prepared canvas. Goltzius’s example was mainly followed by marine artists, among them Willem van de Velde the Elder, who is now regarded as the originator of the genre of the maritime pen painting. Like Goltzius, he started out with vellum around 1640. Those drawings show what a high standard he could achieve, with amazing details and a refined composition, but it soon became clear, as it had with Goltzius, that he was approaching the limits of the possible. His largest pen drawings on vellum measure roughly 60 x 80 cm He could have used larger sheets, but then there was far more chance that they would contain surface irregularities, which would have ruined the delicacy of his technique. It was time, in other words, to strike out on a new path, in this case by using the larger support of a panel. That demanded a slightly different technique but had greater potential. It was only the preparatory work that was more laborious. Later, in 1672, the cartographer Pieter Blaeu, an acquaintance of Van de Velde, explained what that involved. 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. Blaeu was talking about pen paintings on canvas, but the method for panels was largely the same.
The rediscovered View of the IJ from the Old City Inn in Amsterdam
dates from the crucial period when Van de Velde made the switch from vellum to panel. He must even have worked briefly on both supports at the same time to meet the demands of clients who preferred vellum. This is demonstrated by another view of the IJ, on vellum, in the collection of the Koninklijk Oudheidkundig Genootschap. It is a little smaller than the pen painting now with Kattenburg, but there are so many similarities in the details and composition that is very likely that they were both made at about the same time in the early 1640s.
Willem van de Velde was a businessman as well as an artist. He had a good eye for techniques and opportunities on the art market. In order to drum up new business he was prepared to list everything he could do with a pen, as he once explained to a Swedish nobleman whom he was trying to interest in a pen painting. I can do this [make pen paintings], 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. That was evidently a strong selling point, cleaning a pen painting with water, just like a painting. Nowadays we would be tempted to add: ‘Don’t try this at home’. Willem van de Velde was taking a gamble with his innovation. A pen painting not only took a long time to prepare but also to make. Many days of work were needed for even a small panel. That investment could only be recouped through a relatively high price, which in turn could only come from well-to-do clients. Van de Velde evidently managed to find them, but he still only produced a limited number of pen paintings, because his method was so labour-intensive. He was active for almost 60 years, but in that time he made fewer than 100 pen paintings.7 Those from his early period, roughly 1640 to 1650, are really scarce. The same is true of topographical scenes like this view of the IJ, which is why this superb pen painting is such a welcome addition to the artist’s oeuvre.
Dr Remmelt Daalder
Former Senior Curator of the Scheepvaartmuseum, Amsterdam