The Draughtsman: Reflections on Willem Van de Velde the Elder

Between the sturdy oak fortresses and thundering cannons he weaved. I like to think of the salty sea spraying his grizzled face as he pressed on, undeterred in his small listing craft to achieve an even closer look at the carnage ahead. His calloused hands made rough sketches and intricate strokes to capture the details only before seen by the sailors and fishermen. But he would bring them home for all. Most would believe I am describing a madman or a wild myth. But this man, Willem van de Velde, was a very real man and the most famous maritime artist of his time who would rub elbows with the most powerful figures of the era.

Born to a merchant skipper in a fledgling Dutch Republic in 1611, Willem spent his youth surrounded by the sea. I can imagine him looking on at the busy scene of the harbor as a child. The cool sea gale blows in, scooping off the young boy’s hat and filling his lungs with a sense of home. The crevices and canals are crooked inland, their sides covered in wooden walkways and dirt roads, filled to the brim with activity. Small fishing trawlers sail out at the crack of dawn, loaded to the brim with men young and old, hauling line and net, rowing to the mouth of the canal, and finally raising the main to pursue their daily catch. Workmen march down the docks with their saws and mallets, flanked by rickety wooden shacks of local merchants selling everything from seafood and stone, to spice and sugar. The queen of the scene would the great merchant vessel bound for the east. It is beautifully adorned with paint in vibrant greens, reds, and gold with intricate wood carvings of cherubs, lions, and creatures of all kinds proudly stationed all throughout the vessel. This towering glory is a true work of art, shining in the glisten of the rising sun. Dozens of sailors rush about the ship like little ants, filling the belly of her hold with red bricks, textiles, and silver, laying out the rigging, and preparing to sail. Yes I could see young Willem with wide eyes to all this activity, eager to be a part of it.

Maybe it was such enthusiasm that convinced his father to allow him to join him on a great voyage at only 11 years of age. Maybe it was these busy maritime scenes that the boy so wanted to preserve. He did start to sketch these magnificent queens of the sea at a young age. I can imagine his father, a skilled tradesman forged by the sea, noticing his son sketching some scene of the harbor he called home. He would see his son had a useful skill, and when one has a useful skill, he would think they should capitalize on it. Perhaps he encouraged his son to learn to be a draftsman, perhaps he did not, but Willem would take on this career with pride. Even in his later years as a famous artist in the courts of England and Holland, his correspondence would always be signed “Willem van de Velde, Marine Draughtsman”. A draftsman is a maritime sketch artist, drawing up architectural designs for shipbuilders. Indeed Van de Velde would learn about these great vessels inside and out, recording every last component of them in great detail. Even as his life and career moved forward, sketching in this way always remained his main method of creation as he went from technical blueprints to scenes of calm bays, bloody battles, and malevolent storms.

The young draughtsman began sketching practical designs as any other, but his excellent detail and clarity did not go unnoticed long. He would soon gain a plethora of wealthy patrons and would eventually rise to sketch for the nobilities of the Netherlands and Sweden. As his reputation gained traction he was eventually commissioned to make sketches for the Dutch Navy, among the greatest maritime forces of the time. He was praised for artistic beauty and practical usefulness, becoming the official sketch artist of the navy shortly after. He would spend years accompanying the fleet and in 1666, for the first time, he would request permission to take a small boat out during the thick of battle simply for a better view to sketch from. I have sailed in vessels the size of those galleys and they are intense to control even on a calm lake, much less a stormy ocean in the heat of dozens of ships blasting each other to oblivion. Not only would he have had to be daring, but calm, controlled, and focused to manage the feat of painting and controlling the small craft. And he did not stop. Perhaps it gave him a high, but he would perform this feat for countless more battles. Never ordered. Never requested. Always chosen by the man himself. Admiral De Ruyter himself, the daring Nelson of his day, was said in some accounts to be in shock by the artist’s boldness, but a passion for excellence and the rush of the sea are a powerful force. However, the storms he strove through were not all physical, and it was the physical storms that seemed to give the man the least distress.

Van der Velde had a very stormy marriage to say the least. While the records do not shine light on the intricacies of his private life, they certainly convey the results. The pair were legally separated, something nearly unheard of in the protestant society of their era due to “the most violent of quarrels”. Perhaps marrying at 20 years of age bound the two before they fully matured into adults; two adults inconsolably different. Perhaps Willem spending months upon months, often most of the year, away at sea with the fleet dried up affection and overflowed resentment. Perhaps the artist’s career consumed his life and focus. Perhaps lust reared its’ ugly head, it is commonly believed the pair had affairs. Whatever the case, the two clashed and clashed massively. In his family, like his art, Willem valued what he helped create over his partners is business and life. Remember when I specified Van der Velde the Elder? It is necessary because his son would become a maritime artist himself who would soar past even himself in artistic fame.

Willem recognized his son’s talents from an early age. Perhaps he noticed the same glimmer in the eyes of his son regarding the harbor that he had himself. Perhaps he was curious whether his son shared the gift. Perhaps he wanted a partner to share his artistic passions with. Regardless, he and famed artist Simon de Vliger trained his son in the arts from the time he was a boy and by age 17 he was masterfully crafting something even his father could not: detailed oil paintings. The elder Willem was the draftsman, the sketch artist, the master of inks. The younger was the painter, the one who brought colors, the master of oils. The father and son duo worked together in the same studio for the entirety of the elder’s life. I like to think it was more than a job. Both were noted to be quite reserved and practical, yet they spent most of their lives in each other’s company. Perhaps there was a shared passion, an understanding, a deep familial bond. The younger Willem shared his father’s career ambitions, hyperfixation on maritime art, rocky marriages and personal lives. He was his father’s son. The two would stay together, even in the worst of times.

Willem and his son would experience a truly traumatic loss in the middle of their careers: everything. The Dutch Republic would be overwhelmed by the invasions of Britain and France, and as times grew hard, the first sectors cut from patronage was the artists. Unable to find work and having their home under threat of invasion, the pair would cross the English Channel. The British king quickly employed the two, granting them a significant pay and use of the royal estate “The Queen’s House” as their studio. I had the honor of visiting the building during my time living in England, filled with a collection of the arts of both father and son. It is a large manor with much space and isolation from the city yet a short walk to the river Thames and its bustling dockyards. This is something I believe the two artists would have found much peace in, something they perhaps truly needed. I imagine there was much mourning of what they had lost, yet the men remained in their passion undeterred, something that perhaps helped them move on. The pair would remain in London for the rest of their days.

Willem the Elder had to be directly ordered by the king to cease his closeup battle sketching into his 70’s. He died in London a very old man in his 80’s with his life’s story sketched in ink. Willem is often only regarded for his sketchwork and his son’s accomplishments. The records hardly discuss who Willem the person was, and that is a story that deserves to be told. Who was he truly? Who was this man that created so much? Nobody can know for certain, but his art and his actions speak for themselves. I believe he was a man truly passionate of the sea’s majesty. A man who embraced his practical skills with unbridled fervor. A man with turbulent emotions who buried himself in his craft. A man who preferred quiet and the company of his quills to the company of crowds. A man who knew his purpose. I like to think I can feel just an inkling of empathy to his daring battlefield sketches as I sail through rough waters. Perhaps I can understand the peace he felt and the determination he held within his residence as I strove through it surrounded by the works he created there. Perhaps when I glance out in wonder to the sea I spent my childhood near, he felt the same way glancing from the other side at the same sea.


John Tobin is an undergraduate student studying psychology. While visiting art museums in Europe during his time studying abroad, he saw dozens of Van der Velde’s works and gained a special appreciation for them. During some personal digging, John was shocked at how limited biographies spoke of who Van der Velde was as a person. So many had pondered the depth of his works, but so few the depth of his character. John wanted to paint a picture of more than Willem the Artist; he wanted to paint Willem the Man.