Considered by the great nineteenth-century connoisseur Gustav Waagen to be 'a perfect gem of the master', the Dreesmann Van de Velde can be regarded today as one of the most beautiful and poetic Calms by the artist still to remain in private hands. The exceptional condition of the paint surface allows for an especially vivid appreciation of Willem van de Velde's refined technique and his unique ability to render light and atmosphere. In this example, the artist captures the essence of a still, bright summer's day on the water. Typically, a large portion of the painting is devoted to the sky, in which Van de Velde demonstrates the full extent of his mastery of painting clouds. Against a blue backdrop, airy, voluminous, cumulus clouds are depicted variously in light and shadow to dazzling effect with their reflections subtly caught in the mirror-like water below. Although the boats appear to have been arranged randomly, their specific positions and character have been worked out with clear and careful deliberation in order to create an effortless sense of recession into the distance and an overriding sense of spacial harmony. The hint of a breeze is indicated by the smoke that rises from a stove on the bow of one of the foreground vessels, but the absence of any wind to disturb the water allows the details of the boats and their reflections to be rendered in sharp focus. This effect is augmented by Van de Velde's use of paint, rich in medium, that he applied thickly and smoothly onto a well prepared support (he typically used two ground layers to ensure that the surface of his panels was completely smooth).
Van de Velde began painting scenes such as this in the early 1650s, no doubt inspired both by Simon de Vlieger (1600/01-1653), under whom he is thought to have trained in the years around 1648/49, and also by Jan van de Cappelle (1626-1679), who was probably also active in De Vlieger's studio in Weesp at the same time. Indeed the latter artist painted a number of Calms in the early 1650s that directly evoke the languid mood and compositional harmony of the present work. See for example the Kaag and a Smak in a Calm, painted by Van de Cappelle in 1653, and sold in these Rooms, 8 July 2005, lot 33 (£3.592 million). A similar dating for the present work is very likely and was endorsed by Michael Robinson who (judging from a photograph) dated it to circa 1655, noting that the man-o'-war in the background is typical of ships of the mid-1650s (Robinson, op. cit.).
The Dreesmann picture has a particularly distinguished provenance. Its first recorded owner was George William Coventry, who succeeded his father on 18 March 1751 as 6th Earl of Coventry, and who was an outstanding patron of the arts and collector. He had already embarked on building a new mansion at Croome, employing Lancelot 'Capability' Brown to realise a Palladian scheme that may have been devised by Sanderson Millar. Brown created one of the most ambitious landscape gardens of the time at Croome, and designed the remarkable gothic church of 1758-63 to the north of the house. The interior of this was decorated by Robert Adam, who designed other buildings in the park from 1760. Adam also worked on the principal interiors of Lord Coventry's London mansion, Coventry House, no. 29 Piccadilly, now no. 106, formerly the St. James's Club. Much of Adam's work at Croome, where the park has been restored by the National Trust, survives: the Library bookcases are, however, in store at the Victoria and Albert Museum, while the impressive Tapestry Room, designed to house a suite of tapestries after Boucher by Neilsen, which the Coventrys ordered in Paris, is now in The Metropolitan Museum, New York. Coventry was a major collector both of English and French furniture, and of Sèvres. His distinguished collection of pictures was divided between Croome and Coventry House: some of the frames designed for these by Adam can be identified, but the major Old Masters from the collection, including this panel by Van de Velde, have all been reframed to suit the taste of later owners.
Coventry remarried in 1764 and was succeeded in 1809 by his eponymous son by his first marriage, the 7th Earl, who died in 1831. On the death of the 7th Earl's son, also George William, the 8th Earl of Coventry, in 1843, the heir was the latter's five-year-old eponymous and orphaned grandson. Accumulated debts and the prospect of a long minority no doubt encouraged his trustees to sell en bloc six of the outstanding pictures in the collection, including this Van de Velde, to Baron Lionel Nathan de Rothschild (1808-1879) in 1843. More pictures were sold at auction in the following year.
Lionel had been head of the London banking house of N.M. Rothschild & Sons since 1836 and had been instrumental in organising the loan of a colossal £16 million to the British Government to finance the Crimean War. He was a great patron of the arts and philanthropist who gained notoriety for his generous financial donations in aid of the Irish Famine in 1847. After taking his seat as a Member of Parliament in 1858, Lionel set about the construction of a new London house at 148 Piccadilly, employing two English architects Thomas Marsh and Charles Innes. The interior decoration was entrusted to M. Joyau who, using a team of sculptors, plasterers, painters and furniture makers from France, created one of the ultimate expressions of the goût Rothschild. The mansion remained in the family's ownership until 1937 when it was sold and the contents were dispersed in famous series of sales held by Sotheby's, on the premises, in April of that year. The present painting was acquired in that sale (lot 18, 19 April 1937), by Agnews, on behalf of Lionel's eponymously named grandson, of Exbury, Hampshire. After his death in 1942, the Van de Velde was inherited, along with a superb collection of paintings, French porcelain, furniture and works of art, by his son, Edmond de Rothschild. Faced with heavy death duties, the young Edmond agreed to sell a group of the best Dutch pictures en bloc to John Enrico Fattorini (1878-1949) in a private sale organised by Tancred Borenius, which was finalised on 15 April 1942.
The new owner was the grandson of Antonio Fattorini (1797-1859), one of the two brothers from Bellagio near Lake Como, who had settled in Yorkshire in the 1820s. John Enrico Fattorini was a visionary retailer who founded the Grattan warehouses' mail order business in Bradford in 1912. Under his direction the company expanded rapidly and, following its flotation on the stock market in 1936, Fattorini began to indulge his passion for collecting paintings and works of art. He was particularly fond of Dutch cabinet paintings and formed a close relationship with W.E. Duits, the London art dealing firm, who acted on his behalf in the acquisition of many of these works. Resisting the temptation to buy in quantity, Fattorini was a disciplined collector, buying a relatively small number of extremely high quality pictures.
The Rothschild pictures acquired en bloc in 1943 formed the principal highlights of Fattorini's collection, many of which, along with the Van de Velde, were sold by his heirs in a succession of sales held at Sotheby's in London between 1996 and 2004. These included Gerard ter Borch's The Music Lesson (3 July 1997, lot 7; now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles); Jan van der Heyden's The church of San Andreas, Düsseldorf (3 July 1997, lot 8); David Teniers the Younger's The potter's fair at Ghent (3 July 1996, lot 12); Pieter de Hooch's Maid in a sunlit courtyard (3 July 1996, lot 14); and Jan van Huysum's Still-life of flowers and Still-life of fruit (11 December 2003, lots 74 and 75).