Exhibition Review

Adriaen van de Velde

Amsterdam and London

by JOHN LOUGHMAN

 

AS WELL AS providing a feast for the eyes, the best exhibitions break new ground and challenge the visitor. Adriaen van de Velde: Dutch Master of Landscape, seen by this reviewer at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (closed 25th September), and currently on view at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (to 15th January 2017), does all three with admirable aplomb. The curators, Bart Cornelis and Marijn Schapelhouman, who also wrote the excellent catalogue, succeed in casting new light on the career and work of a somewhat forgotten master.1

This is the first retrospective exhibition of the work of Van de Velde. Indeed, apart from his inclusion in numerous surveys of Dutch art and an unaccomplished dissertation that was published with poor-quality illustrations in 2001, the artist has received scant attention in the literature.2 Such scholarly neglect of a painter and draughtsman who was rightly acclaimed as among the greatest representatives of the Dutch Golden Age in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has as much to do with the difficulty of neatly categorising his work as with changing fashions. His Italianate pastoral scenes, which predominate from the mid-1660s, many of which seem like variants on a single theme, have always been difficult to reconcile with his more exuberant and accessible depictions of blustery days on the beach at Scheveningen, summer walks in the Haagse Bosch or skating on the ice near unidentified Dutch towns. In addition, Van de Velde produced a small number of history paintings, mostly religious works, and the occasional portrait and genre scene.3 His artistic development did not follow a straightforward trajectory, which further complicates matters. Some early paintings are indebted to Paulus Potter and Karel Dujardin, while others are strikingly original and give credence to the stories that he was a prodigy who reached maturity quickly; in his later work classicising landscapes alternate with images of the native countryside. According to Cornelis, Van de Velde produced over 170 paintings in a career that lasted from about 1653 to 1672, the year of his death at the age of thirty-five.

Drawings feature strongly in this exhibition. This is hardly surprising given the high number (over two hundred) that survive, for Van de Velde was fastidious in his use of preparatory sketches as part of his working process. The high calibre of his figure and animal studies was recognised by contemporaries such as Jan van der Heyden and Meindert Hobbema, who both employed him as a painter of staffage. One of the joys of the installation in the Rijksmuseum was the instructive way in which the thirty-six drawings were integrated with the twenty-four paintings. At Dulwich the number of exhibits has been reduced slightly, the most significant omission being the Annunciation from Amsterdam (1667; cat. no.19), one of the rare religious paintings with large figures by this convert to Catholicism.

Distributed among three rooms, the Amsterdam installation did not follow a strictly chronological or thematic structure, perhaps reflecting the elusive nature of much of Van de Velde’s output. An information board seemed to identify the first room as ‘Van de Velde Workshop’, although the actual contents were much more diverse. Indeed, only one painting fell under this rubric, a beach scene from the National Gallery, London (c.1660; no.1), jointly attributed to Adriaen and his elder brother Willem van de Velde the Younger. There can be little doubt that Adriaen van de Velde received some training in the studio of his father, Willem the Elder, and that he occasionally painted the figures and other elements in works by Willem the Younger. However, rather than follow the family’s specialisation of marine painting, Adriaen looked to terra firma for inspiration, and the opening section of the exhibition was largely composed of early independent images of tranquil farmsteads, cornfields and riverbanks, as well as a recently rediscovered equestrian portrait from a private collection (no.4). The sea features only in the background of his evocative beachscapes, the best of which is also the earliest dated painting of this type (no.5; Fig.53). Van de Velde’s working methods were also brought to the fore. The Rijksmuseum’s Hut (1671; no.30), previously one of the artist’s most celebrated works, was shown in conjunction with four preparatory drawings, ranging from a cursory sketch of the dilapidated building, probably made in situ, to red-chalk drawings of individual figures and animals.

The second room, labelled ‘Specialities’, purported to focus on Van de Velde’s most distinctive paintings from the 1660s: sun-drenched Southern-looking landscapes populated by restful herders and livestock. Again, this characterisation proved too narrow, and Italianate landscapes alternated with scenes of haymaking, hunting, figures enjoying themselves on frozen Dutch canals and a family posed in front of their country villa. Van de Velde is at his best on a small scale. Two of the most exquisite works in the exhibition were a haunting image of horses and other animals set against a storm-laden sky from the Fondation Custodia in Paris (1669; no.27) and a representation of a couple strolling in a wooded clearing (no.17; Fig.54), whose dappled light effects and loose brushwork give it something of the quality of a plein air study. Throughout the richly illustrated catalogue, Cornelis and Schapelhouman are at pains to stress the prescient character of much of Van de Velde’s work. His windswept seaside scenes, for instance, seem to anticipate those of Eugène Boudin and later the Impressionists, while the little-known Haymakers resting in a field (c.1663; no.18) from a private collection has uncanny similarities to the elegant harvest scenes painted by George Stubbs more than a century later. There are also obvious parallels between his sumptuous red-chalk sketches (no.42; Fig.52) and the drawing style of French Rococo artists such as François Boucher.

The centrepiece of the final room in Amsterdam was the aforementioned Annunciation, probably painted for a clandestine Catholic church. Surprisingly, Van de Velde used a drawn nude study of the Virgin Mary, now in the Ashmolean (no.20), as a first step in developing this figure. However, in the early nineteenth century it was his coloured drawings of landscape subjects that were most highly prized by collectors. These range from watercolours such as The ferry (c.1662; no.47) and Summer landscape with wheatfield (1662; no.48), where he demonstrated his virtuosity by using only his brush to indicate detail, to a depiction of the church of SS. Quattro Coronati in Rome (no.53), which in the past was used as evidence for an undocumented trip to Italy, but was more likely based on a print or drawing by another artist. Van de Velde seems to have been in financial difficulties towards the end of his life and took on less edifying work, such as designing decorations for maps (nos.57 and 58) and producing finished landscape drawings for the open market.

Apart from extensive entries, the catalogue consists of a long essay by Cornelis. It looks at Van de Velde’s artistic evolution, his workshop practices and pupils, and his legacy. Various misconceptions are expertly dismantled, such as Houbraken’s claim that the artist had been trained by Jan Wijnants, and there are illuminating discussions on, for example, the fading of fugitive yellow pigment in Van de Velde’s paintings, which has transformed many of his greens into blues. This well-researched publication is a fitting record of a landmark exhibition.

 

1 Catalogue: Adriaen van de Velde: Dutch Master of Landscape. By Bart Cornelis and Marijn Schapelhouman. 228 pp. incl. 211 col. + 33 b. & w. ills. (Paul Holberton Publishing, London, 2016), £35. ISBN 978–1–90737–296–4.

2 M. Frensemeier: Studien zu Adriaen van de Velde (1636–1672), Aachen 2001. Bill Robinson’s insightful and still valuable study of Van de Velde’s drawings should also be mentioned; see W.W. Robinson: ‘Preparatory Drawings by Adriaen van de Velde’, Master Drawings 17 (1979), pp.3–23 and 57–69.

3 To coincide with the Rijksmuseum exhibition, the Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder in Amsterdam displayed Adriaen van de Velde’s series of five paintings of Christ’s Passion. These paintings, many in a poor state of preservation, were originally commissioned in 1664 for the attic storey of this museum, which houses a Catholic chapel.