On the left is the yacht of the Amsterdam Admiralty. The splendidly carved and painted stern of the ship portrays an oval shield bearing the arms of the United Provinces, a red lion on a yellow background. The shield is flanked on both sides by trophies of arms. Above the stern are the arms of Amsterdam, supported by two lions. The white part of the flag on the mast contains a circle with three crosses. The meaning is unclear.
Yachts were originally warships used by the sailors of Dunkirk, Zealand and Holland from the late sixteenth century to the first quarter of the seventeenth century. They were lightly armed, but fast and could be rowed when becalmed. This class of yacht was the predecessor of the royal yacht and state yachts used by such official bodies as the States General, the Admiralty and the city magistracies as the aquatic limousines of the day. They were intended to transport important people and the deliver messages and orders.
Because of their official function these yachts were often richly decorated with carvings and paintwork. Their speed and splendour led to a demand for yachts from abroad. During his stay in Holland Charles II expressed a wish to own such a ship himself. The yacht given to him by the Amsterdam magistracy in 1660 created a new trend in England and let to an enormous increase for boating for pleasure.
The later half of the sixteenth century saw the rise of the pleasure boat in Holland too, as can be seen on the many illustrations of such ships on paintings by Ludolf Backhuysen and Abraham Storck the principal marine painters in the Netherlands after the departure of the Van de Veldes for England in 1672. Because they were exclusively used for pleasure these yachts were often smaller than those employed for official purposes.
The yacht in this painting carries a sprit sail and is firing salute both from the bow and from the side. The salute is being answered by the ship on the right. This ship, a two-decked ship with between 36 and 40 guns, is not flying a war pennant and from red flag flying from the stern post it may be a merchantmen. This flag, showing an arm with a sword, was flown by man-of-war as a sign they were attacking but was also used by merchantmen as a recognition sign. The stem post supports the flag of the United Provinces, although this may be a play on the name of the ship.
In the background between the merchantman and the yacht a man-of-war can be seen with the arms of Amsterdam on the stern.
All this is taking place off the coast of Texel, the area where the Dutch naval and mercantile vessels generally entered and left the inland waters.
The painting is signed in full, W.V. Velde de jonge, and dated 1654 in the bottom right-hand corner in the sea. Willem van de Velde the Younger, a pupil of Simon de Vlieger who died in 1653, was 21 years old in 1654. The painting may have been personally commissioned. Whether or not this is the case, he was no longer a pupil and no longer restricted by the regulations which would have limited him to signing no more than one piece a year. It is not known exactly when Willem van de Velde the Younger began working with his father. The earliest evidence for a potential commission in which the younger Willem was to paint a sea battle using sketches made by his father in part at the battle and partly based on detailed accounts by eyewitnesses dates from 1652.
In any event this painting is one of the earliest dated works by Willem van de Velde the Younger, our greatest marine painter, the fact alone is sufficient to make the painting of interest. The manner in which the man-of-war and the merchantmen are portrayed are reminiscent of Simon the Vlieger, yet the coloration, the way the water is painted, sharp and full of contrast, strengthened by the coulisse effect on the light and shadow of the waves is completely unique to the young artist and heralds the start of a new period of Dutch marine painting. While with Jan Porcellis and Simon de Vlieger the accent still lay on the sky, the light and water in monochrome tones, Willem van de Velde the Younger allowed the ship to play an equal part and the coloration was enhanced by the sunlight.
It never ceases to amaze how such a young artist was able to paint such complicated formations of ships so accurately and with such self-confidence. The accuracy in which he painted the ships leads one to suppose that he based his compositions on his father’s drawings. His precision goes beyond pure academic exactitude, in itself no guarantee for a work of art. For true art is more needed, a combination of courage, vision, technical competence and especially the ability to leave things out, to bring the subject down to its essential elements. These are the qualities which are abundantly evident in this painting and which reveal this as a key work in the oeuvre of Willem van de Velde the Younger.
An exceptional early painting by Willem van de Velde the Younger