Specialist Sarah de Clercq reveals the story behind an atmospheric watercolour by Willem Witsen, to be offered at Christie’s Amsterdam on 13 June after being passed down through the same family since 1910
‘This watercolour comes from the most interesting period of Willem Witsen’s career,’ says Sarah de Clercq, Head of Old Master and 19th Century European Art in Amsterdam. Carriages at the Victoria Embankment, London (c. 1890) has never been on the market before and is in superb condition. It will be offered in our 19th Century & Modern Art sale on 13 June at Christie’s Amsterdam.
Born in Amsterdam, Willem Witsen (1860-1923) was one of the core members of the Amsterdam Impressionism movement (also known as the Dutch Impressionists, or the Tachtigers). The group — made up of roughly 20 painters, writers and poets — was formed in the late 1880s through a mutual rejection of the realistic style of painting preferred by their teachers at the Royal Academy of Art at The Hague, the so-called Hague School painters, who focused on depicting impressions of landscapes.
Unlike their French counterparts, the Amsterdam Impressionists were more interested in representing urban life than scenes of nature. Common subjects included cityscapes, labourers at the docks and the lives of servants. Other key members of the group included George Hendrik Breitner (1857-1923) and Isaac Israëls (1865-1934).
In October 1888 Witsen moved from Amsterdam to London, where he stayed until January 1891. He was inspired by the rapidly modernising city, as exemplified by the the electric lights along the Thames depicted in this watercolour.
‘Witsen was very excited by what was happening in London and this made him open to new artistic influences,’ explains de Clercq. ‘He was constantly trying to renew himself as an artist. In addition to watercolours, he made etchings, experimented with photography and reworked the same scenes from different views. He would continue many of the techniques he developed in London after returning to Amsterdam.’
The specialist believes that Witsen was most interested in conveying atmosphere and emotion during his London period. ‘He tried very hard to give an impression of a rainy, misty walk along the Thames, and I think the lone man is a reflection of the artist’s own feelings,’ she says. ‘Witsen was more interested in emotional depth than in depicting a perfectly realistic cityscape. I believe the London period contains some of the artist’s strongest and most exciting works.’
Witsen was also introduced to the work of James Abbott McNeill Whistler while he was in London, and you can clearly see Whistler’s influence in this watercolour. ‘I’m not sure if the two artists met in person,’ says de Clercq, ‘but we are certain that Witsen saw Whistler’s work at exhibitions; the Nocturnes series was particularly influential.’
Although Witsen made numerous sketches, etchings and watercolours during his stay in London, works from this period rarely appear on the market. Carriages at the Victoria Embankment, London was first acquired by a collector from the artist’s dealer in 1910, and has been passed down through the family to the present owner, the original owner’s great-grandson. He contacted Christie’s in Amsterdam after seeing how well three other Witsen drawings were received in the Old Masters & 19th Century Art — including Dutch Impressionism sale on 15-16 November 2016.
De Clercq says she is ‘thrilled’ that Christie’s will be the first auction house to offer this watercolour. With its links to both Amsterdam and London, the specialist is confident that this exceptional piece will appeal not only to Dutch connoisseurs, but to collectors from all over the world.