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Naval Battles, Storms, Calms and Ship Portraits

First retrospective exhibition of Van de Velde marine art

Detail from Episode from the Battle in the Sound, Willem van de Velde the Elder (sketching on the left in his galliot), circa 1660 (Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar).

This year the National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam (Het Scheepvaartmuseum) is organising a retrospective exhibition of the artists Willem van de Velde the Elder (1611-1693) and his son Willem van de Velde the Younger (1633-1707). The exhibition will be on view at the museum from 1 October 2021 until 27 March 2022. In their day, Willem the Elder and Younger belonged to the crème de la crème of 17th-century marine painting. The exhibition Willem van de Velde & Son explores the Van de Velde family business, their eye for detail and atmosphere, their extraordinary skill and Van de Velde the Elder’s role as a ‘war correspondent’. The works on display range from rough pencil sketches to meticulously drawn pen paintings, and from dramatic scenes of storms and naval battles and soothing ship portraits to monumental tapestries. The National Maritime Museum has never before brought together so many objects by both artists from its own rich collection and loans.

Cultural Entrepreneurship

As well as having a healthy dose of talent, Willem van de Velde the Elder and his son Willem the Younger were both resourceful and entrepreneurial. This explains for an important part their success. Both had their own specialism: Willem the Elder excelled in extremely detailed drawings; his son in atmospheric oil paintings. Their entrepreneurial spirit even secured the Van de Veldes an international audience: they worked for admirals, princes and kings. When the Dutch art market collapsed in the so-called Disaster Year of 1672, father and son accepted an existing invitation from the English king Charles II to work at his court. The Van de Veldes took up residence in a studio at the royal palace in Greenwich, just outside London. In England too, they experienced extraordinary success.

Anglo-Dutch Wars

The time of the Van de Veldes was dominated by three Anglo-Dutch wars that mainly took place at sea between large naval fleets. These naval battles provided the inspiration for a succession of paintings and drawings. Willem van de Velde the Elder’s meticulous ‘pen paintings’ were highly sought after. A pen painting is an ink drawing on a painting-sized canvas or panel. The exhibition includes a number of striking examples including The Battle of Livorno (Rijksmuseum) and The Capture of the Royal Prince during the Four Days’ Battle, 1664 (Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe).

War ‘correspondent’

Willem van de Velde the Elder was often personally present during the great naval battles. A sailing boat (a ‘galliot’) was made available to him, and he was ferried between the enormous war ships. He sketched the hostilities on paper, adding annotations so that he could later work out these sketches in detail in his studio. Good examples of this are Dutch Naval Fleet at Anchor in the Skagerrak, 27 October 1658and Council of War on the Flagship Eendracht at the Vlierede, 7 October 1658 (both National Maritime Museum collection). In Episode From the Battle in the Sound(c.1660), Van de Velde’s galliot appears on the left, making its way between the countless ships engaged in a fierce battle (Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar).

The Burning of the Royal James (Later in the Day), Thomas Poyntz and Willem van de Velde the Elder, London, 1685 - 1688

As smooth as glass and wild seas

Willem van de Velde the Younger’s father taught him to draw and observe. In contrast to his father, he worked in pen and oils rather than pen and ink. He mastered the entire genre of marine painting: from ships lying at anchor in calm weather or sailing out of the harbour on a light breeze to imposing cloudy skies, dramatic waves and straining sails on the point of snapping. The exhibition includes many magnificent examples from glassy stretches of water on a windless day (Ships in the Roads, c. 1658, Mauritshuis) to stormy scenes in which ships battle to withstand heavy storms (Three Ships in a Gale, 1673, National Gallery, London) or are already damaged and have lost their mast (A Ship on the High Seas Caught by a Squall, known as ‘The Gust’, 1680, Gallery of Honour Rijksmuseum).

Unprecedented Productivity

The Van de Velde’s painting studio existed for over seventy years. Their productivity during this period was unprecedented: they are estimated to have produced more than 2500 drawings and 800 paintings. Today their works of art can be found in every major art and maritime museum around the world. The work of the Van de Veldes symbolises the heyday of Dutch marine painting. At the same time, the father and son inspired many generations of Dutch, British and French marine artists who came after them.

Monumental Tapestries

In addition to paintings and drawings, the museum will also be displaying two rare and monumental tapestries that were woven by Thomas Poyntz in the Royal Tapestry Works near London after a design by Willem van de Velde the Elder. These tapestries are part of a series of six that show various scenes from the Battle of Solebay that took place off the English coast on 7 June 1672. The largest tapestry, which measures an impressive 6 by 3.3 metres, shows the deployment of both fleets. The second, which measures 4.5 by 3.3 metres, shows the battle in the late afternoon with the English flagship the Royal James, then the largest ship in the English fleet, completely burnt out.

‘The Solebay Tapestries remind us of our shared cultural heritage. The exhibition is a symbol of the strong and continuing connections between Britain and the Netherlands.‘ – Sue Prichard, Senior Curator of Arts, Royal Museums Greenwich


The exhibition has been made possible thanks to the support of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, the BankGiro Loterij, Het Compagnie Fonds, the Mondrian Fonds, Fonds 21, the Turing Foundation, the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds, Stichting Zabawas, the Nico Nap Foundation, the Samenwerkende Maritieme Fondsen and the Gravin van Bylandt Stichting. The acquisition of the Solebay Tapestries was made possible with the support of the Vereniging Rembrandt (in part thanks to its UK Circle Fund), the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, the BankGiro Loterij, the Mondrian Fund, the Samenwerkende Maritieme Fondsen, the Society Dutch Historical Maritime Museum and Het Compagnie Fonds.


Willem van de Velde & Son

National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam (Het Scheepvaartmuseum)

From: 1 October 2021 - 27 March 2022

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