This beautifully preserved calm is a remarkable work by the outstanding marine painter of the Golden Age of Dutch art, Jan van de Cappelle. Not seen in public since its inclusion in the celebrated Manchester Art Treasures exhibition in 1957, it is the first time it has appeared on the market since 1897 and is comparable in date, style and composition with the artist's greatest masterpieces of this type.
Van de Cappelle's pre-eminence is even more suprising in that he appears to have been largely self-taught as an artist. Virtually nothing is known about his training, but a reference to it was famously made by his friend and fellow-artist Gerbrand van den Eeckhout in a quatrain in the album amicorum of the humanist Jacob Heyblocq, praising the 'art of Johannes van de Cappelle who taught himself to paint out of his own desire'. How he accomplished such a feat remains unclear, and Simon de Vlieger has been named as a teacher of some sort. Certainly evidence like the sheet of perspective studies by de Vlieger, signed and dated 1645, in the British Museum, London, suggests that the elder artist had been exploring an important compositional element of Van de Cappelle's work before the latter had established himself.
It has therefore for long been hypothesized that the type of luminous marine exemplified by this work was an innovation introduced by de Vlieger that was then refined by Van de Cappelle. However, that theory seems untenable because of the existence of a Calm by the latter dated 1645, formerly in the Robarts collection, sold in these Rooms, 13 December 1991, lot 16 (£2,640,000), and now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, California. Such a date places it four years ahead of the first known such work by de Vlieger, the Visit of Frederick Hendrik II of Orange to the Fleet at Dordrecht of 1649 in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. More recent study of the date on the former painting has, however, shown it also to be 1649, dating the two works to the same year: a much more plausible date given the similarities between the two pictures, for example seen in the arrangement of the central States yacht in each. As such, it seems less problematic to envisage a relationship between the two artists in which they explored together the possibilities afforded by their closer study of light and atmosphere.
Such a relationship would support the view that the two artists were close, and maybe that de Vlieger had helped Van de Cappelle in his earliest forays in painting. Some sort of lasting connection is certainly implied by the existence of a remarkable 1,300 drawings by de Vlieger in Van de Cappelle's estate. In addition his studio contained two paintings described as copies by the artist, one after de Vlieger and the second after Jan Porcellis that are justly considered to shed light onto his autodidactic methods. It is entirely hypothetical, but nonetheless attractive, to imagine the young enthusiast beginning by copying pictures in his own collection, and subsequently seeking out, befriending and even working alongside the original artist.
The present painting is an important insight into Van de Cappelle's early work, and clearly shows the relationship with de Vlieger. The silvery tonality for which the latter is so regarded, and that Van de Cappelle also employed in his earlier work, developed a more golden tone in the 1650s (exaggerated here by the old varnish), but the influence remains, for example the almost ethereal man-of-war in the left background, which gives a clear idea of the underlying palette and strongly displays de Vlieger's influence (one might consider, for instance, the distant ships in the latter's Squadron of Admiral Maerten Harpertsz. Tromp preparing to make sail of the late 1640s sold in these Rooms, 9 July 2003, lot 41). Even at this early stage, however, just four years after the Getty picture, one can perceive the tremendous advances that the younger artist was making and that are reflected in such contemporaneous works as his celebrated masterpiece A Calm in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, with which the present painting is very comparable (fig. 1).
Van de Cappelle was the undisputed master of conveying atmosphere in his paintings. In his finest works - and it is certainly the case here - there is a sense of the transparency of his subject matter that is unmatched by any other of his contemporaries. That sense of liquid suffuses the entirety of his compositions, from the extraordinarily luminous sea, to the exquisitely limpid light and high and airy, but slightly louring, skies. This pervasively aqueous mood is echoed by the almost ghostly effect of the distant ships, seen through the haze of the marine atmosphere and at times no more than white flecks on the clear silver of the horizon. The palette is carefully restricted, the main contrasts to the silvers and blue-greys being the earth tones that merge so softly from between reality and reflection blending together shore, water and boats into the compositional whole.
That composition is, of course, carefully worked out. Apparently simplicity itself, it is arranged to convey the sense of depth that completes the illusion of reality. The central group of boats and their reflections creates a diamond shape from the lateral corners of which project two avenues of space framed on their other sides by, on the left, the man-of-war, and on the right the fishing boat. Within those avenues are one or two ships receding towards the distance that draw the eye to the far horizon, lit by the palest tones that separate sea and sky. The foreground is linked tonally to the central group, and this connects the viewer with the picture; at the same time, the rowing boat in the foreground, its bow jutting out towards the front plane, explaining the recession from the fore- to middle ground. Similarly subtle are the arrangement and colour of the clouds, designed to complement and balance the various ships. Many of these devices recur in Van de Cappelle's other work of this period, for example the closely comparable Vessels in a calm sea in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (see fig. 2), and might be regarded as hallmarks of the artist's style.
As noted by Russell (op. cit., pp. 21-2), the location of the scene is indicated by the school of porpoises in the lower left corner, which occur nowhere on the Dutch coast other than in the shallow waters of Flushing. That area seems to have been popular with the young artist, who made several sketches based some of his finest works there, including The Beach in the Mauritshuis, The Hague, the Calm Sea in the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels, and the Rijksmuseum Calm. Van de Cappelle was himself a keen sailor in the inventory of whose estate are recorded 'a pleasure yacht with sails' anchored in the Oude Stadherbergs harbour as well as a rowing boat at the dye-works; it is not unlikely that Van de Cappelle made the trip to Flushing in his own boat, and there prepared the sketches that he subsequently developed into finished paintings. Russell also suggests (ibid., p. 26) that after his marriage in 1653 (the date of this painting), Van de Cappelle's family responsibilities would have made such lengthy excursions less likely, leading her to date all the small group of Flushing pictures to either before or not much later than that year.
A kaag and a smak in a calm, with fishermen pulling in their catch from a rowing-boat in the foreground, a Dutch frigate and other boats beyond
Oil on canvas
THE PROPERTY OF A FAMILY TRUST (LOT 33)
Signed and dated 'J V Capelle 1653' (lower left)
Jan van de Cappelle
London, Royal Academy, Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters - Winter Exhibition, 1885, no. 117.
London, Royal Academy, Exhibition of 17th Century European Art, 1938, no. 193, illustrated.
Manchester, City of Manchester Art Galleries, Art Treasures Centenary Exhibition, 1957, no. 112.
18¾ x 20 7/8 in. (47.6 x 53 cm.)
C. Hofstede de Groot, A Catalogue Raisonné, etc., VII, London, 1923, p. 175, no. 69, as signed and dated 1654; and p. 187, no. 111, as signed and dated 1653.
M.A. Russell, Jan van de Cappelle, Leigh-on-Sea, 1975, pp. 21-2 and 70, no. 69.
Richard Clemson Barnett, Chester Terrace, London; (+) Christie's, London, 18 June 1881, lot 125, 'J. van de Capella - A Calm with a Man of War and fishing boats at anchor, two men in a boat drawing in a net in front', as dated 1653 (530 gns. to Colnaghi).
with Colnaghi, London, 1881, whence acquired for 609 gns. by
Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Pemberton Heywood-Lonsdale (d. 1897), and by descent to the present owner.