Birthdays / Dutch / Look Back: Art History / Painting

Happy 379th Birthday Willem van de Velde II!

When I tell people that I insure art for a living, I like to pretend that my life is like The Thomas Crown Affair on loop.

A regular day at the office (that's me on the left)

A regular day at the office (that’s me on the left)

Of course it isn’t. For one thing, Crown’s spunky can-do love interest is an investigator. I, on the other hand, am an underwriter. This means that I look at inventories of the art collections or heritage buildings, and figure out how much their owners should pay to insure it. Much of this work is based on valuations that have already been carried out.

My work isn’t client facing (I work with insurance brokers rather than the individuals who own the art) and I have little contact with the art itself. Still, in the few months I’ve been working at my company I’ve found it fascinating.

There’s something deeply satisfying about working with numbers. Numbers are so firm and definite. What a contrast to art itself and the art market, which is constantly in flux. Coming from a background of academic art history and very little math, I’ve found the insurance world engaging in its earnestness and practicality.

And I’ve learned that one of the biggest worries in insurance – even art insurance – is not the Thomas Crowns of the world. It’s the weather. Sure, art theft can be devastating, but it’s nothing compared to what nature can throw at us.

My company does not insure for situations like this. Thomas Cole, The Course of an Empire: Destruction, 1836.

My company does not insure for situations like this.
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Destruction, 1836.

Just take a look at the millions of dollars of destruction Hurricane Sandy wreaked on Chelsea galleries alone in November of this year. While various relief funds gave generously, it was the insurance companies who provided reparation for the majority of the damages.

But people have been facing up to nature for a long time, and for a long time art has had a hand in that relationship.

Journeys by sea, for example, offer plenty for the imagination. The intricate mechanics of human creations against the infinitely stronger force of water is fascinating. So is the promise of adventure and new discoveries on voyages, power over enemies in war or just comfort in travel.

Willem van de Velde II, who celebrates his 379th birthday today, painted pictures of ships. These marine pieces were highly prized in their day, not only as nice images, but especially as powerful representations of civic pride.

In the late seventeenth century, when van de Velde painted, the Dutch Republic was at its strongest. It had spread out across the globe, its explorers bringing back a wealth of discoveries and information about foreign lands. The idea of a unified Netherlands was still new, but their sea power allowed them to face the English in the three Anglo-Dutch wars.

One of the first maps of the world was created by a Dutch artist, thanks in part to Dutch exploration teams. Abraham Ortelius, Typus Orbus Terrarum, 1564.

One of the first maps of the world was created by a Dutch artist, thanks in part to Dutch exploration teams.
Abraham Ortelius, Typus Orbus Terrarum, 1564.

During the wars, van de Velde was set up in a large yacht to observe the sea battles. During these battles he would make sketches to better record the power of the Dutch fleets. And he was rewarded by seeing his paintings hung in various Dutch naval colleges and town halls.

“Nightly Fighting Between Cornelis Tromp on the ’Gouden Leeuw’ and Sir Edward Spragg on the ‘Royal Prince’ During the Battle of Texel (Kijkduin) on August 21, 1673: Episode From the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-74)”.

“Fighting Between Cornelis Tromp on the ’Gouden Leeuw’ and Sir Edward Spragg on the ‘Royal Prince’ During the Battle of Texel (Kijkduin) on August 21, 1673: Episode From the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-74)”.

Now there are a lot of van de Velde marine paintings to choose from. Plus, if you get tired of the pictures painted by van de Velde himself, there are also host of similar images painted by his father, his students and his imitators.

Dutch men-o'-war and other shipping in a calm, Date unknown. Provenance Servad collection, Amsterdam.

Dutch men-o’-war and other shipping in a calm, Date unknown. Provenance Servad collection, Amsterdam.

But I think one of my favorites might be this one.

In part I like it because it’s relaxing to look at. You can really see the detailing in the woodwork of the ships and the network of ropes around the sails. The still water casts deep reflections of the ships and it’s lovely how the sky spreads out expansively.

But at the same time, it’s like nature’s having a bit of a laugh. These are war ships, but in a calm their power is severely diminished – after all, it takes wind to go anywhere. Human force is needed to propel the ships in this image; those great white sails are temporarily useless with no wind to fill them.

And in the end, I think it’s fascinating how nature is portrayed as having the last word, even in the calm.

Or maybe the art underwriter in me just wants to see beautiful things at low risk.

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One thought on “Happy 379th Birthday Willem van de Velde II!

  1. It’s more like a Constable landscape than a naval scene. It is a great image, because ships at sea were often becalmed, the crews bored. There are a few battle pics with the painter putting himself in the scene. Brave or stupid? Or part of the job of being a great artist? Have you seen the paintings of ex ships captain Nicholas Pocock? They are really good. From late 18th century England.

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