This newly-rediscovered work is a rare addition to the oeuvre of Jan van de Cappelle, arguably the outstanding Dutch marine painter of the 17th Century. Van de Cappelle's artistic period seems to have been relatively brief - dated works range from 1649 to the 1660s (paintings from the decade exist with the last digit illegible) - and he was traditionally believed to have ended his artistic output after a severe illness in 1666. However, as noted by Margarita Russell (Jan van de Cappelle, Leigh-on-Sea, 1975, p. 10), the fact that there was an unfinished picture in his studio at his death implies that he must have been painting on occasion until the end of his life. An alternative explanation for the sharp reduction in his output may be suggested by his decription in a notarial document of 1666 as a 'verwer [dyer]', indicating that he may from the 1660s have been taking on additional responsibilities in his family's dye-works (even though his father remained nominally in charge until his death in 1674).
Although it may have curtailed his output, Van de Cappelle's family business also provided him with the personal fortune that enabled him to indulge his artistic leanings. Never having served as an apprentice, he was, remarkably, self-taught - his friend, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, described him in 1654 in the Album Amicorum Jacobus Heyblocq (now in the Royal Library at the Hague) as 'bij hem selfs uijt eygen lust geleert [who taught himself to paint out of his own desire].' Instead, he seems to have absorbed the influences of the two major marine artists of his day, Simon de Vlieger and Willem van de Velde I. This was combined with a personal love of ships and sailing - he himself owned a pleasure yacht, moored in the 'oude yacht haven' in Amsterdam.
The present picture reveals in particular the debt of de Vlieger, whose luminous, atmospheric technique had so influenced the genre in the 1640s. This type of scene, with fishing boats moored in a calm, and peasants on mud flats in the foreground, recurs on several occasions in Van de Cappelle's work of the end of the 1640s and early 1650s: one might, for example, consider the Coast Scene of 1652 formerly in the Northwick Park collection (M. Russell, Jan van de Cappelle, Leigh-on-Sea, 1975, fig. 11), the Small Vessel in Light Airs and Another Ashore of the early 1650s in The National Gallery, London or the Calm of the mid-1650s in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne. All of these would appear to derive from the Ships in the Roadsteads with Fishermen in a Calm by de Vlieger in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg, datable to circa 1650-1: a connection that is particularly noticeable in the ex-Northwick picture.
Although it is hard to establish a chronology for Van de Cappelle's works, given the very few dated examples, the present picture's subtle blend of a few warmer elements interjected amidst a generally more monochrome, blue-grey tonality supports a date in the early 1650s, when Van de Cappelle was moving away from the silver-blue-grey palette of the 1640s. That date is also indicated by the form of the signature - as first noted by Stechow, one can take as a general rule (there are exceptions) any works signed 'I V Capel' to predate 1650, 'I V Capelle to date from 1650-1, and 'I V Cappelle' to postdate 1651 - as well as by the stylistic influence of de Vlieger.
Typical of Van de Cappelle's work is the strength of composition employed: the foreground mud-flats act as a dark repoussoir, beyond which the eye is led both by the reflection of the sails in the water, but also by the broad curve of flats, boats and spur of land, towards the fishing boats in the middle ground. From there, a careful structure is created by the positioning of boats receding on both sides towards the horizon, an impression of depth that is enhanced by the band of light on the horizon, sandwiched between the low-lying, sombre cloud and the dark water that reflects it. This feeling of space and distance is then set beneath the vast, billowing, sombre masses of clouds that rise above the composition, imbuing the painting with a heavy, limpid light and atmosphere that is so characteristic of Van de Cappelle's oeuvre.
We are very grateful to Mr. Willem van de Watering for confirming the attribution on the basis of photographs; Mr. van de Watering also notes that 'the form of the signature is that practised by the artist in about 1650/1, with which the style of the picture is in accordance' (letter, 17 October 2003).