A masterpiece of Willem van de Velde the Younger’s early maturity, this beautifully preserved painting of 1661 can be counted as one of the most serenely poetic calms in the artist’s oeuvre. The painting is little known, having remained in the same collection for over sixty years, and has not been seen in public since it was exhibited in 1954.
This work belongs with a small group of paintings on this theme from the early 1660s in which, as George Keyes attested: ‘Van de Velde brings his concept of the calm to perfection’ (Mirror of Empire, exhibition catalogue, Cambridge, 1990, p. 162). It is very closely comparable with the celebrated picture in the National Gallery, London, also dated 1661, which is widely recognised as the outstanding example from this group (fig. 1). Van de Velde began to paint calms in the early 1650s, inspired no doubt both by Simon de Vlieger (1600/01-1653), under whom the artist is thought to have trained in circa 1648, and Jan van de Capelle (1626-1679), who was also active in de Vlieger’s studio in Weesp at that time. As van de Velde developed the theme, his depiction of light became increasingly subtle, revealing greater contrast between light and shadow, more intense hues, and an unsurpassed skill at rendering skies and refection on water.
The great nineteenth-century connoisseur Gustav Waagen described this picture as a work: ‘of singular delicacy and transparency’ (op. cit.). Indeed, it displays many of the qualities for which van de Velde is most celebrated, notably in its finely crafted and harmonious composition, its exquisitely drawn ships, and in its serene atmosphere. Typically, a large portion of the canvas is given over to the sky, showing van de Velde’s mastery of the depiction of cloud formations. The combination of clouds, the reflections in the water and the recession of boats into the distance, together create an overriding sense of space and harmony. These effects are enhanced by van de Velde’s use of paint, rich in medium, which he applied thickly and smoothly onto a well-prepared canvas.
It has been suggested that van de Velde based his view on an actual location in Den Helder, the northernmost tip of the north Holland peninsula, by a break in the seawall. It may have been that van de Velde was particularly struck by the beauty of the coastline at Den Helder, where he made plein air drawings for later use in his paintings. A few other works were painted from the same spot, most notably the aforementioned picture in the National Gallery, London, and a picture in the Staatliche Gemäldegalerie, Kassel, which, perhaps painted slightly earlier, displays a similar arrangement of vessels.
Note on the Provenance
This picture has a particularly distinguished eighteenth and early-nineteenth century provenance. It is first recorded in the collection of the French textile manufacturer, amateur engraver and collector, Jean de Jullienne (1686-1766). As a young man he studied drawing with Jean-François de Troy, engraving with Boucher, and was a friend of François Lemoyne and Antoine Watteau, whose Portrait of a Gentleman in the Louvre, Paris, was said to be of Jullienne (fig. 2). His vast collection comprised 500 drawings by Watteau, as well as his Mezzetin (New York, Metropolitan Museum), 13 paintings by Rembrandt, 250 Rembrandt and 203 Dürer prints, as well as other works that he had purchased from the sales of Crozat, Antoine de la Roque and Jeanne-Baptiste d’Albert de Luynes, comtesse de Verrue, among others. Sold in 1767, as part of the posthumous sale of Jullienne’s estate, the present work was acquired soon afterwards by Étienne François, duc de Choiseul (1719-1785), one of the pre-eminent French statesmen of the eighteenth century.
Through industry and intrigue, Choiseul (fig. 3) rose to become the most powerful person in France after King Louis XV, amassing a great fortune and spending it extravagantly on, among other things, an outstanding collection of paintings. He was once characterised as ‘a wonderful mixture of selfishness, charm, recklessness and exquisite taste’. Choiseul fell out spectacularly with Louis XV in 1770 and retreated in disgrace to his estate, Chanteloup, in the Touraine region of central France. Unable any longer to sustain his princely lifestyle, Choiseul was forced into selling the great majority of his collection, including the present work, in a highly publicised auction in Paris in 1772. Of the 147 paintings that went under the hammer, 113 were Dutch and Flemish, giving a clear barometer of where fashionable taste lay in mid-eighteenth century France.
The picture next entered the collection the Swiss financier, civic leader, writer, collector and patron, François Tronchin (1704-1798). As a young man Tronchin was drawn to Paris where he became enamoured by literature and the arts. He returned to Geneva in 1736 and from around 1740, as his financial career blossomed, he began to acquire Old Master paintings, with a predilection for Dutch and Flemish works. The jewel in his collection was Rembrandt’s Sarah Awaiting Tobias on her Wedding Night (c. 1645; Edinburgh, National Gallery), which can be seen in the background of his celebrated portrait by Jean-Etienne Liotard of 1757 (fig. 4; Cleveland, Ohio, Museum of Art). In 1770 he sold 95 pictures from his collection en bloc to Catherine the Great of Russia. These included Gabriel Metsu’s Prodigal Son (c. 1650) and Jan Steen’s Game of tric-trac (1667; both St. Petersburg, Hermitage). Tronchin immediately started acquiring pictures again, buying this work by van de Velde from the Choiseul sale as part of his effort to form a second collection after 1770. Tronchin’s support of local artists in Geneva led him to be regarded as the ‘godfather’ of the Geneva school, whose collection served as inspiration to a whole generation of local Swiss artists. After his death, 226 pictures from his collection were sent to Paris to be auctioned in 1801 by Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun.
The picture is next documented in 1854 when Gustav Waagen saw it at Charlton Park in Wiltshire in the collection of Henry Howard, 18th Earl of Suffolk and 11th Earl of Berkshire (1833-1898). Waagen remarked that Suffolk’s collection: ‘though moderate in size contained some valuable pictures’. Chief amongst which was Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks which was sold by the Earl of Suffolk in 1880 to the National Gallery for 9,000 guineas.