Thursday, 12 January 2017

Van de Velde:The Dutch golden age.

I took a short walk through Dulwich Park to the Dulwich Picture Gallery on Wednesday afternoon. They were showing an exhibition devoted to 17th century Dutch artist Adriaen Van de Velde which, like much they do, could be accused of being a little niche. Certainly it was overpriced.

Born in 1636 Van de Velde's work went on to be greatly admired in 18c France and 19c Britain but in the last century his star has waned. I'd certainly not heard of him before. His style was known as Dutch Italianate and he wasn't considered as Dutch as his contemporary van Ruisdael nor as Italianate as Nicolas Berchem or Karel Dujardin.

Baptised in Amsterdam's old church on the 20th November 1636 the big city boy's work looked to much more rural, pastoral settings. His father was a painter of ships and his brother painted maritime and coastal scenes. With this pedigree it's hardly a surprise that young Adriaen turned out be a child prodigy. He'd made his first painting by the age of 17 and at 21 was turning out works that many considered to be masterpieces. If he hadn't died just two months after his 35th birthday no doubt there'd be many more.

Because of his short life/career the curators haven't gone for a chronological approach. Though they do start with some of his earliest works. He seemed particularly fond of beachscapes. The Shore at Scheveningen from 1660 shows what I imagine to be a typically windy day on the beachs of the North Sea.

It's very cloudy. These clouds seem to be a regular feature with Van de Velde's work. I know Holland's not permanently sunny but I can't help thinking he just liked painting clouds. Horse and carriages too judging by the amount of times they show up.

1658's View of an Estuary, which I wasn't allowed to take a photo of and I can't find on the internet, is my favourite in this room. A warm, still, summer day with horses, goats, and sheep arranging themselves, in Van de Velde's imagination at least, in to an aesthetically pleasing composition. It reeks of the rural idyll.

The second room is pretty much devoted to 1671's The Hut (above). Flanked by many preliminary drawings (which room three devotes itself to in its entirety so we'll pass over that quickly) your eye finds itself pondering yet more bucolic pleasantness. Here Van de Velde first introduces one of his trademark buxom milkmaids or shepherdesses. They've often got a few buttons undone to further enable the male gaze.

Halfway through the exhibition and it's nice to get back to some actual paintings. Preliminaries are interesting to understand how an artist worked up their piece but this exhibition has too many at too great a cost. To be fair Van de Velde did work some of his sketches up in to finished drawings that were, we're told, probably for sale. There's a lot of conjecture in this exhibition.

Conjecture about whether or not Van de Velde visited Italy. We learn there's no evidence for a trip over the Alps but his Italianate work poses further questions. The hills and sunlight are certainly far more Italian than they are Dutch but the vegetation is totally that of the Netherlands.

In 1657 Van de Velde married a Catholic, Maria Pietersz Ouderkerck, and his children were brought up in that faith. Was this relevant to his religious work? It's hard to say for certain but the evidence, works featuring the Annunciation, David playing his harp for Saul etc;, suggests so.

Predictably I prefer the more secular works. There are skittle players, pastoral scenes, haymaking, drinking, deer parks, flirting, and colf players on the ice. Whatever colf is! These have more warmth and charm than the religious scenes and look only to be appreciated rather than to instruct and hector.

Pastoral herdsmen in idealised landscapes became Van de Velde's brood en boter towards the end of his short life. Eighteenth and nineteenth century art collections were said to be incomplete without the inclusion of  one of Van de Velde's Arcadian scenes. For a vegetarian tree hugger like me there's far too much hunting going on in these works.

Amsterdammers flocked to see 1667's Portrait of a Family in a Landscape believing it to depict Van de Velde and his family. The number of visitors diminished rapidly when it was confirmed it was no such thing. The following year's Shepherd and Shepherdess with Cattle by a Stream is a typical late Van de Velde and a fine example of this so called Dutch Italianate style. His shepherdesses always wore blue and yellow. It was probably his way of stamping his own individual mark on his works so that patrons knew what they were buying but I like the fact they're now the colours of the EU flag. Brexiteers need not bother with this exhibition.

Though, to be frank, very few people need bother with it - and, most likely, very few will. It's too expensive for what it is. There's too much conjecture and how many cows do you want to see? No doubt Van de Velde was a great artist and had incredible skill but the reason that star of his has waned seemed to me to be simply because his art hasn't aged particularly well and doesn't have a great deal to say to a modern audience.

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