Sales. – W. Moorhead, Edinburgh, 1835. George Morant, London, April 15, 1847. Owned by John Smith, London, 1849: sold to JS Beckett, according to a note by John Smith in his own copy of his catalogue. Private collection United Kingdom.
- Hofstede de Groot, A Catalog raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century: Based on the Work of John Smith , vol. 7, London 1923 (ed. Cambridge 1976), pp 107-108. (As ‘A Warship under Full Sail on a rough sea. Sm. 258).
Two artists, father and son Van de Velde, both with the first name Willem, dominated maritime painting for a long period of the seventeenth century and, as an example and source of inspiration, even well after their deaths, into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Willem van de Velde the Elder (Leiden 1610 – London 1693) and his son Willem van de Velde the Younger (Leiden 1633 – London 1707) were famous for their drawings and oil paintings of ships, coastal scenes and maritime activities at sea. The father was primarily a draftsman, the son excelled in oil paintings, but was also a gifted draftsman. Characteristic of his work in oil paint is his accuracy, combined with a subtle representation of light and reflections on the water and on the sails of the ships. This, combined with a talent for composition, resulted in an oeuvre of paintings that depict the maritime business of his time in an inimitable way. In England, where the Van de Veldes settled in 1672, Willem van de Velde the Younger laid the foundations for the flourishing school of British marine painters.
Ships on a reason
This painting is an example of the high level that Willem van de Velde reached early in his career, around 1660. It dates from the artist’s Dutch period, when father and son had a joint studio in Amsterdam. In its use of color it is reminiscent of the silver-grey palette of Van de Velde’s teacher Simon de Vlieger (1601-1653). What we see is a windy day at sea, off a coast with some buildings. The wind and cloud-veiled sunlight come from the left. The high sky begins to close on the left: heavy showers or thunderstorms are on the way. The waves are already being whipped up by the stiff breeze.
The main motif of this painting is the large ship on the left. This makes the painting look like a ship’s portrait, with the necessary touch-ups to enliven it. But if it is not a real portrait, then the painter would have depicted the ship on the transom, the place where the decoration that refers to the ship’s name was applied. There are therefore not many leads for the exact identification of the ship, only the large size and the flag indicate that we are dealing with the flagship of a high-ranking officer. At the front, on the blind or bowsprit mast, we see a flag with an orange lion with a bundle of arrows and scimitar on a yellow field, the flag of the States General. A small ‘double Prinsenvlag’ is attached to the foremast, a variant of the usual tricolor, which was mainly used on ships of the Admiralty of Amsterdam. That admiralty was one of five naval organizations that, under the auspices of the States General, jointly equipped the war fleet. A large red-white-blue flag (the Statenvlag) flies from the top of the mainmast. That indicates that the commander of a squadron is on board here. Five other warships of this squadron are shown, less prominently, in the background. Finally, a red flag with an image of an arm with a saber blows from the poop. This is a so-called blood flag that had different meanings depending on the situation. This flag was raised at the start of a battle, but it was also a signal for the captains of a squadron to meet at the flagship for consultation, the ‘court-martial’. The latter is the most obvious in this performance: after all, nothing indicates an approaching naval battle. The ship has lowered the foremast and mainmast yards and is in the process of anchoring, a maneuver that the other ships have already partially performed. Because we see the ship from the front, diagonally on the port side, the entire upper deck is visible to the viewer. There is a lot of activity there, as can be expected when anchoring.
As a counterpart to the large ship on the left, Van de Velde has added some ‘update’. Apart from the rowing boat on the right and a small inland vessel in the center, there are, on the right, two ships with one mast and gaff rig: a quay with a wide or narrow ship behind it. Such barges could be found on inland waterways and, as here, in the tidal inlets of the Republic. They transported both goods and passengers on a strictly regulated timetable. A nice detail is that the men on the quay and the wide ship are clearly busy with the rudder and the sails to avoid a mutual collision. Van de Velde de Jonge, who did not sail with the war fleet himself, like his father, was familiar with sailing (as a passenger) on such inland vessels.
A strip of land can be seen in the background, subtly lit by the sun: a beach with low dunes. The buildings on the left are so sketchy that a precise identification of the place of action cannot be given. That must not have been the intention of the artist, he wanted to give a generic picture here of ships in choppy water near a coast, as contemporaries such as Frans Hals and Rembrandt, in addition to portraits, also painted ‘tronies’ or characters. Van de Velde’s source of inspiration may have been the Goereese hole, but also the coastal waters of Zeeland or the roadstead of Texel.
This painting is not characteristic of Willem van de Velde de Jonge’s oeuvre. In his Dutch period, until the emigration of father and son to England in 1672, the calm coastal views predominate, with more use of color than here. Only later – especially after 1672, because of the demand from the English market – did he paint more spectacular canvases, depicting ships during storms and thunderstorms. Yet this canvas does not stand alone. Michael Robinson’s catalog of the paintings by both Van de Veldes also contains several stormy navies from the early Dutch period, or paintings with a similar weather change as in this painting. Below this is also a painting that is a variant of the work discussed here (fig 2) The versions are not completely identical. The most striking difference is the position of the large warship on the left: we see this diagonally from the front on the starboard side, while the canvas discussed here shows the port side of the same ship. There are also some differences in the position of the other ships, as if the artist took two snapshots with a minute interval.
 About the family business of the Van de Veldes see: Remmelt Daalder, Van de Velde & Son marine painters. The Company of Willem van de Velde the Elder and Willem van de Velde the Younger, 1640-1707 (Leiden 2016).
 Timothy Wilson, Flags at Sea (London 1986) 75.
 Michael S. Robinson, The Paintings of the Willem van de Veldes (2 vols, London 1990), chapter 5 (p. 715 ff).
 Robinson aw, no. 567, p. 730-731. Robinson does not name the painting discussed here, but Cornelis Hofstede de Groot lists both canvases one after the other in the section on Willem van de Velde: C. Hofstede de Groot , A Catalog raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century . (London 1923) (ed. Cambridge 1976), pp 107–108, nos. 424 and 425.
Additional image: A Dutch ship and two vessels under sail in a fresh breeze with other ships at anchor. 76 x 73.7 cm. Catalog Robinson II, p. 730-731. 1990 Residence: Belvoir Castle, Nottinghamshire, UK.
It is precisely with such self-repetitive repetitions that the artist could afford such variations. It is impossible to determine which of the two paintings was the original version. Van de Velde seems to have liked the motif of the ship, viewed diagonally from the front and with billowing sails on the mainmast and jib. Also on a third canvas, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, more or less the same ship can be seen, albeit without many other vessels around it.
The version discussed here shows a number of characteristics that are typical of Van de Velde’s style. For example, he tends to make the masts of the large ships slightly longer than they actually are, giving them extra elegance. And the carefully composed decor of vessels in the background also enhances the liveliness of the work, something in which this master excelled. The details on the ships, the men and the rigging also invite you to keep looking long and attentively.
dr. Remmelt Daalder
Amsterdam, February 15, 2020
 Robinson aw, no. 6, p. 731-732; Hofstede de Groot aw, no. 471c..