Last week daughter and I took some time off to hop over the Channel and wander the canals and museums of old Amsterdam. It was a short break, but a full schedule, we went everywhere on foot from morn till dusk, apart from a paddle boat hour on the canals.
One of the highlights of the trip was the Rijksmuseum. It was my second visit there, I blogged about my initial trip when I first started this blog years ago, but this time there was much more time to explore the museum. Daughter was much taken by art objects like clocks, china and other decorated crafts, for me though I was totally caught up with the wealth of visual arts. One painting by Peeter Baltens sparked an idea for a picture book – recording it here so I don’t just sit on it (as often happens with my picture book ideas).
Another painter I was much impressed with was Jean-Étienne Liotard. I knew of his work vaguely as a mid-18th century portraitist, but seeing the originals was pretty amazing. The delicacy and lightness of his portraits in pastel and oil had an almost ethereal reality, some seemed almost modern in colour and tone, this one in particular to my eyes could almost have been painted in the 1920’s.
There was so much to be impressed by, the ship models, the doll houses, the Waterloo display, and the highlight pieces by Vermeer, Van Eyck, and of course, Rembrandt…
But the big one for me was seeing once again the marine pen and ink drawings of Willem Van Der Velde the Elder.
The Van der Velde family of artists are often lumped together and sometimes confused, the oil paintings of the brothers Willem (the younger) and Adriaen are very well known, but it’s the work of their father that particularly impresses me. Van der Velde the Elder was master of a technique called pen-painting (after the Dutch penschilderij), consisting of pen and ink drawing and fine washes over a hardened oil lead white primer base. These enormous, incredibly detailed ink drawings of naval battles were a new discovery for me the last time I visited the Rijksmuseum and just blew me away with their intricate fine pen lines.
It was just fantastic to see these works again. I love all painting, I can appreciate oil paintings from a relatively lay perspective, because I don’t paint in oils myself. But this is pen and ink, my medium, it’s just breathtaking to see such fabulous detail in the hands of an absolute master. I’m completely humbled by his work.
Van der Velde I worked with ships his whole life, initially in Holland, then in Britain after he moved with his family to London. He was even present at a couple of battles, so knew the workings of these vessels intimately. I’ve always loved old ship paintings, but it’s the sheer scale of these drawings and their meticulous drama that really impresses – the subjects could have been of anything really and still blown me away, but the technical renderings of these ships and their crew take it to another level. It’s difficult to give a true idea of the size and level of detail in these snapshots.
The Rijksmuseum has five of his large-scale battle pen-paintings (here are the full size works). They’re fine compositions seen from a distance, but to really appreciate Van der Velde’s work you have to get up close…. very close.
Van der Velde the Elder’s best period was in the Netherlands – after he moved to Britain pressures of living, domestic strife (he cheated on his wife repeatedly), and differing art markets must have had a big effect – his work become less intricate in later years. Next time I’m in London I must visit St. James church Piccadilly, where he’s buried, and pay my respects. He may not have been the ideal husband, but man he knew how to use pen and ink. I can at least stand in awe of his art!