Praised by Gustav Waagen in 1851 for its 'extraordinary clearness', this scene has long been regarded as a key work from Willem van de Velde's early maturity. Selected for the van de Velde exhibition at Greenwich in 1982, it was described in the catalogue as 'remarkable for the accuracy of the painting of the ships and the great precision in the details'(Cordingly, loc. cit.); while Robinson - notoriously exclusionist in attributing works to the artist - deemed it (after first hand inspection) 'perhaps painted entirely by the Younger for the van de Velde studio, circa 1658' (op. cit., p. 331).
Robinson's dating of the picture places it within a group of the artist's most eloquent depictions of calms, executed several years before his move to London. The composition is typical of van de Velde's early arrangements, in the way that the vessels are grouped on both sides, leaving a distant view in the middle, partly mitigated by a smaller vessel placed in the middle distance. In this respect, the artist must have been influenced both by Simon de Vlieger, under whom he trained around 1650, and to a greater extent, by his father, whose grisaille designs often formed the basis for Willem the Younger's paintings. The present work typically devotes a large area in the upper reaches of the canvas to the brilliant observation of the sky, while offering a richly detailed description of the array of vessels below (these are described in precise nautical detail by Robinson op. cit., p. 330). The positioning of the boats, the way the light catches their sails, and the angles at which they are viewed, is worked out with masterful care, creating an overriding sense of serene tranquility.
By virtue of the Orange coat-of-arms with the lion supporters on her stern, the main vessel has been identified as the States Yacht built for Prince Frederick Henry from 1645 but completed only after his death in 1647. A detailed drawing of it by Willem van de Velde the Elder is in the Nederlands Scheepvarts Museum, Amsterdam, and the same yacht appears in several paintings by Willem the Younger including the Calms (Mauritshuis, The Hague, inv. 200; National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, inv.64-23; and another in a private collection, Robinson op. cit., no. 751), all of which are datable to around 1658.
This picture was acquired in 1738, together with a pendant, by the eccentric collector Leak Okeover (d.1762) for Okeover Hall, the Staffordshire house to which he had succeeded in 1729. The record of the purchase, from the London dealer Thomas Morland, is said to be preserved in Morland's accounts at Okeover where he was also involved in the restoration and re-framing of many of the pictures Leak had inherited from his father (see A. Oswald, 'Okeover Hall, Staffordshire I-IV', Country Life, 135, 23, 30 January; 12, 19 March 1964). Both paintings by Van de Velde were seen by Waagen in 1851, and they were sold consecutively in the 1936 Christie's sale, the pendant being the States Yacht and other vessels in a stiff breeze, dated 1673, now in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (inv. 60-16). Robinson has made the point that despite the two pictures' long history together they are unlikely to have been conceived as pendants because of the discrepancy in date and style.