Adriaen van de Velde's landscapes are a quiet revelation – review

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Adriaen van de Velde: Dutch Master of Landscape is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until January 15
Adriaen van de Velde: Dutch Master of Landscape is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until January 15

It is a bright, brisk day on a broad expanse of beach, and the sands are awash with human activity. A fashionable young couple, obviously well-to-do townsfolk on a daytrip to the seaside, stroll amorously in the centre. Children to their right play in a puddle left by the retreating sea.

Beneath a silhouetted church spire in the distance, a rider urges his galloping horse on towards the dunes. Meanwhile, a cart trundles slowly along the surf. And in the foreground, a group of fishermen, with rolled-up trousers and massive nets, prepares to plunge into the breakers.

One of them takes a breather, standing barefoot beside some starfish, his hands clasped casually behind his back. He stares out at the immensity of sea and sky, which we sense immediately off-stage to the right.

What is he thinking? Perhaps he’s melancholy, gazing at the horizon, remembering times gone by. Or maybe, simply, he’s relishing the gusty, briny freshness of the day.

The Beach at Scheveningen, by Adriaen van de Velde Credit: MHK

Based on my description, who would you say had painted this scene? With its outdoors sparkle and offhand air, it sounds like the sort of subject that was catnip to the early Impressionists: a beachscape, perhaps, by the marine painter Eugene Boudin.

If that’s what you assumed, though, you’d be out by around two centuries – because The Beach at Scheveningen, as this picture is called, was painted in 1658 by the 22-year-old Dutch wunderkind Adriaen van de Velde, who is about to be “rediscovered” by a new exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Boudin was a fan – and, believe me, if you weren’t already familiar with Van de Velde, you will want to make his acquaintance.

In 17th-century Amsterdam, where he was baptised in 1636, Van de Velde thrived in a notoriously competitive marketplace of artists jostling to flog pictures to wealthy, art-loving merchants. He was born into a family of artists – his father was the seascape painter Willem van de Velde the Elder, and his brother, Willem the Younger, followed in his dad’s footsteps and became a marine painter too.

Landscape with cattle and figures, 1664 Credit: Adriaen van de Velde/Fitzwilliam Museum/Andrew Norman

Adriaen, though, forged his own path as a landscape painter before dying in 1672, aged just 35 – and the consistently high quality of his more than 170 paintings, and many drawings, ensured that he was subsequently considered a prodigy, one of the chief talents of the Dutch Golden Age. The Wallace Collection, for instance, contains his magnificent showpiece of 1663, The Migration of Jacob.

During the 20th century, though, for reasons that Dulwich Picture Gallery’s otherwise immaculate catalogue does not make entirely plain, he dropped off the radar. This, apparently, is the first ever exhibition devoted to Van de Velde, mounted in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam – and it is a quiet revelation.

It begins with some of Van de Velde’s earliest pictures, including a series of beachscapes full of delightful details such as prancing dogs as well as characters from every walk of life. These sparkling scenes are infused with a subtly comic yet also kindly sense of the great folly of human existence played out beneath vast, indifferent skies. Van de Velde’s interest in experimenting with effects of light, as well as his proficiency at populating landscapes with convincing figures, are also both in evidence.

Then, in a bold and self-confident move, the second room focuses on a single, late painting from 1671 called The Hut. It’s a gentle, humble, Arcadian scene, in which a buxom shepherdess, with spot-lit breasts, sits outside a tumbledown thatched sheepfold, surrounded by resting livestock, while a man on horseback passes by.

The reason this specific painting receives so much prominence is because the curators have managed to source several detailed studies for it, all of which are displayed in the same gallery.

As a result, we are offered a fascinating insight into every meticulous stage of preparation undertaken by Van de Velde – a master draughtsman whose brush-and-ink or chalk sketches (some of which were clearly produced outdoors in the countryside) are ravishing works of art in their own right – in order to produce his beautifully observed finished pictures, such as The Hut.

The Hut by Adriaen van de Velde Credit: Frans Pegt/Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

In other words, the mechanics of the highly skilled craft of 17th-century Dutch painting are on show: we can consider, if you like, the paddling of the swan beneath the gleaming surface of the water.

In a funny way, one of the effects of this is to demystify the “magic” of art. Van de Velde kept his copious drawings in a folder in his studio, and returned to them throughout his career, whenever he required particular figures in various poses while planning compositions.

He had a repertoire, then, of stock images, like counters in a board game that he moved around perpetually in his imagination. They resurfaced in his paintings again and again, suggesting that Van de Velde’s approach to making art was thoroughly prudent, pragmatic – and canny. Certainly, his forays into other genres (equestrian portraits, winter scenes), which we find elsewhere in this absorbing exhibition of 60 works, were designed to attract new buyers.

This, though, is not a criticism. Every room at Dulwich is underpinned by careful, solid scholarship, which, thankfully, never feels dusty or abstruse. Rather than stifling or confining Van de Velde’s accomplished paintings, this clever, loving exhibition makes their glow that much more intense.

From Oct 12 until Jan 15; information: dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk