Jan van de Cappelle was baptized in Amsterdam on 25 January 1626, the son of the wealthy dyer Franchoys van de Cappelle and his wife Anneke Mariens. The name of his master is unknown, and he may have been self-taught. Van de Cappelle’s townsman, the painter Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, began a poem in the album amicorum of the Amsterdam poet Jacob Heyblocq with the line ‘In praise of the art of Jan van de Cappelle who taught himself to paint out of his own desire’ (quoted in Sutton, loc. cit.). Documentary evidence suggests that van de Cappelle was extraordinarily well-to-do. He spent much of his life resident on the Keizerstraat, one of the wealthiest streets in Amsterdam, before moving to a house on the Koestraat, for which he paid the princely sum of 9,600 guilders. An inventory of his estate following his death in 1679 showed he had amassed a fortune of 92,000 guilders and a prodigiously large art collection composed of 200 paintings, including lost portraits by Rembrandt, Frans Hals and van den Eeckhout, and more than 6,000 drawings. Among the largest tranches of works were those by Jan van Goyen (400 drawings) and Simon de Vlieger (1,300 drawings). The latter no doubt provided seemingly endless source material for van de Cappelle’s own paintings.
In the late 1640s, van de Cappelle began to specialize in marine paintings depicting calm harbors with carefully arranged ships, the earliest of which appears to be the painting dated 1649 in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. The present painting, a mature work from the 1660s, appears to take its design from the River scene with Dutch vessels becalmed of circa 1650 in The National Gallery, London (fig. 1). In both paintings, an array of simple fishing vessels dot the placid waters, while a ferry boat (veerpont), viewed parallel to the picture plane, transports dignitaries and other well-heeled individuals to a ceremonial vessel, probably a States General yacht (Staatsjacht). Whereas in the London painting there are few indications of the specific locale, in the present painting Frits Duparc has recently identified the Wachthuis in Dordrecht harbor in the distant central background and the tower of the city’s Grote Kerk on the horizon at right (private communication; see Sutton, loc. cit.).
As is typical of van de Cappelle, the scene presented here does not seem to relate to any specific historical event but rather, as Margarita Russell has pointed out, the painterly possibilities of the sea (op. cit., p. 23). Focus is squarely on the atmospheric effects of the sky, which occupies nearly two-thirds of the composition, and the sweeping curves and luminous reflections of hulls and sails atop a crystalline, almost mirrorlike body of water.