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A search for fisherfolk motifs

Dieuwertje Dekkers on Petrus van der Velden and Scheveningen


<P data-associrn="1409430"></P> <P>In the early 1870s, two decades before he emigrated to New Zealand and became known for his evocative &#332;tira landscapes, Dutch artist Petrus van der Velden jotted down names and addresses of inhabitants of the Dutch fishing village of Scheveningen in one of his sketchbooks, now in the Te Papa collection: ‘Keetje Kramer 14 years’, ‘Jaantje 18 years’, and ‘Martientje 8 years old’. No doubt he wanted to paint them. We do not know if any of these girls actually made it to canvas, but it is tempting to see the older Jaantje as a model for one of the women in the watercolour entitled <EM>Three figures in a landscape</EM>, the scene that is central to this essay. After all, Van der Velden wrote on the same sheet the words: ‘2 baskets’, ‘hat’, and ‘cape’, and the right-hand figure fits this description perfectly.</P> <P>The relevant sketchbook largely contains impressions of the picturesque life of fisherfolk on the island of Marken, in the former Zuiderzee, and is therefore known as ‘A Marken Sketchbook’. But there are also quite a few sketches devoted to Scheveningen (located near The Hague), another settlement where an artist could find themes from the everyday lives of fisherfolk. It is not clear when Van der Velden visited this coastal village on the North Sea, but a sheet from the same sketchbook, showing a detailed sketch that closely resembles the well-known watercolour <EM>Marken games man</EM>, indicates that this could have been 1874. This watercolour bears the inscription ‘P. van der Velden Eiland Marken 1874’. Around the same time, Van der Velden decided to move from Rotterdam to The Hague, where he settled in early 1875, attracted by the favourable cultural climate and the beautiful surroundings, as were many of his fellow artists of the Hague School who preceded him.</P> <P data-associrn="1270272"></P><P data-associrn="1270300"></P> <P><STRONG>Inspired by Scheveningen</STRONG></P><P>Before painters began using the everyday life of Scheveningen fisherfolk as a source of inspiration in around 1825, the village had already been attracting tourists for nearly two centuries. Foreign tourists appreciated the sea and life on the beach, while people from The Hague came to enjoy the fresh fish and to visit the pubs on Sundays. Just a few came to bathe. Only after the opening of the Grand Hotel des Bains in 1828 did Scheveningen increasingly become a resort for seaside visitors. It was the presence of this bathing establishment that contributed to the discovery of the fishing community, which was considered very authentic. Common opinion was that the costumes, manners, and customs of the people of Scheveningen were characteristically picturesque, while the dunes, beach, and sea provided a colourful background. </P> <P>Van der Velden’s Marken sketchbook provides good insight into his fascination with this community. It contains several elegant sketches and rough drawings of women mending nets in the dunes, as well as an interesting schematically drawn dune landscape supplemented with notes about the use of colour (p. 22), and three sketches of Scheveningen fishing boats. Typical shell carts are also depicted, into one of which two men are emptying their shell-filled nets (p. 38). Most intriguing, however, is the quickly sketched impression of three fishermen’s wives in the woods.</P> <P><STRONG>Three fishermen’s wives painted in watercolour</STRONG></P><P>Van der Velden used the latter sketch as the basis for the charming watercolour <EM>Three figures in a landscape</EM>, which is now in the collection of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o T&#257;maki. Three apparently young fishermen’s wives are chatting as they make their way along a path bordered by beautifully sculpted trees. The sky, expressively rendered with opaque paint, glows through the branches. The woman on the left is carrying a reed cradle, while we can see a basket partly hidden under the cape of the middle woman. On the right-hand side, a woman is carrying a few flat baskets nested into one another on top of her fishing hat. </P> <P>Where are these women going, all three dressed in their characteristic Scheveningen capes? The weather is fresh and, given the bare trees, it is evidently not summer as yet. The figure with the flat baskets is a fish vendor. It looks as if her baskets are empty, and she has a contented gaze. She may be returning home after selling her fish from door to door in The Hague. The meaning of the figure with the empty cradle now becomes clearer: she has probably bought it for her unborn baby. She has a proud bearing and radiates joy. In contrast, the woman in the middle is walking somewhat pensively along the path, which can be identified as Scheveningen Road.</P> <P data-associrn="1270306"></P><P data-associrn="1270278"></P> <P><STRONG>From sketch to painting</STRONG></P><P>Van der Velden’s sketches tell us much about his method of working. During his search for motifs, he recorded his first impressions in his sketchbook. Not only his impressions of the entire composition, loosely represented here, but also of such details as those found in his quick sketches of trees. In one of these we recognise the tree in the right foreground of the watercolour. The other trees in the sketchbook are less palpably elaborated in the watercolour, but one with wonderful shading (p. 57) did find its way into the painting <EM>Well laid out</EM> in 1876. </P> <P data-associrn="1404403"></P><P>We can question whether or not the watercolour <EM>Three figures in a landscape</EM> served as a preliminary study for <EM>Well laid out</EM>, although this was a common practice among painters of the Hague School. They were also known to replicate successful paintings in watercolour. However, the background of Van der Velden’s watercolour differs so much from the one in the painting that it is hard to see it as a ‘repetition in small size’. Besides, the watercolour is far more expressive than the canvas. While we can rule out the possibility of a replica, the watercolour could have been used as a mnemonic device for the painting.</P> <P>Van der Velden did, meanwhile, make oil studies of figures on the spot - as was common in the second half of the 19th century &#8211; to develop later in his painting. Two such works, created around 1875, are known.<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP> In particular, a study of the young woman with her cradle from <EM>Well laid out </EM>creates a vivid impression, painted as it is in a free brushstroke. The study for the painting’s middle figure shows the same technique, but also makes it clear that it concerns an older widow. Whereas the younger woman wears a coloured skirt, the older woman is dressed in black; she has a somewhat melancholy expression. Van der Velden’s sketchbook notes correspond to the woman in the oil sketch, reading: ‘old woman’, ‘greenish coat’, and ‘basket in her hand' (pp. 4&#8211;5).</P> <P>In <EM>Well laid out</EM>, Van der Velden again presents her with an older appearance, but without the sadness. She and the young woman are walking together in an intimate way, suggesting they are perhaps mother and daughter. The artist has positioned the fish vendor slightly further away, as if she does not belong to this company. Unlike in the watercolour, Van der Velden has added a few other figures. We see two people walking in the distance, while a fisherman’s wife is resting on a bench to their left. The striking effect of shadow, which is nearly absent in the watercolour, is a noteworthy feature.<P>In other ways, however, the oil painting is awkward in its composition. It is missing the free brushstroke that is so evident in the watercolour, and which shows - like the drawings in the sketchbook or the outdoor oil studies &#8211; ‘the breath of nature’. The trees in the painting look dull, and the position of the figures demonstrates that Van der Velden still has to learn how to arrange his figures in a landscape; they look like models instead of human beings.</P> <P><STRONG>The Scheveningen fisherfolk genre</STRONG></P><P>With his choice of subject, Van der Velden was linking his work to the popular Scheveningen fisherfolk genre. ‘Our trade in genre paintings is totally glutted with Scheveningers and Scheveningsters, tall and small, old and young, pretty and ugly’, an art critic noted in 1875.<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP> This genre was much favoured by the members of the Hague School, a school of Dutch painting that emerged around 1870 and whose exponents included painters such as Jozef Israëls, Anton Mauve, Jacob Maris, Jan Hendrik Weissenbruch, and Hendrik Willem Mesdag. Besides its so-called ‘grey tone’, the style of this school is characterised by efforts to reproduce reality as true to life as possible. But this realism had its limits. Painters at the time did not always explicitly convey the poor social and economic conditions of the fishing population. Van der Velden was no exception to this convention. His reproduction of the Scheveningen fishermen’s wives is picturesque and anecdotal, rather than socio-realistic. This is all the more reason to look more deeply into their main activities. </P> <P>As well as caring for many children and the household, the local women tried to work in the fisheries as much as possible. Women &#8211; but also young girls &#8211; assisted at the fish auction at the beach where fresh fish was sold, as well as at the fish market in The Hague. They had to carry the fish to and fro, although this was not a lucrative role. The occupation of fish vendor, often performed by married women, was better paid. They bought the fish at auction and resold it at the market, where they hired a stand. Selling door to door was done by the very poorest of the fish vendors, mostly girls and married women with children. Usually they hawked from the flat baskets; only those who had earned enough money could afford a dogcart. Furthermore, many women and girls engaged in the difficult job of net-mender. They went into action when the fleet arrived home, and repaired the nets for the next trip. In the summer months, they sat in the dunes or somewhere in the fields, whereas in winter they moved to the attics of the shipping companies. </P> <P>Painters used almost all of these activities as subjects for their work. The motif of mending nets in the open air was popular, and the fish vendor was equally frequently painted. Van der Velden also incorporated a fish vendor &#8211; this time life-sized &#8211; in his painting <EM>Like a fine haddock</EM>, dating from about 1879. A notable absence among the fishing activities depicted are motifs from the fish-drying sheds, where the women cleaned fish and cut them into strips. Apparently this occupation was not picturesque enough for the Hague School painters. </P> <P><STRONG>Scheveningen Road and the Hague School</STRONG></P><P>Scheveningen Road, where Van der Velden placed his motif of the three women, was a 17th-century brick-paved way that formed a direct connection between The Hague and the fishing village. The route was known to foreign tourists as one of the finest in the world. The old rows of alder, chestnut, and elm on either side gave the road a sylvan and idyllic appearance. In the bathing season, coaches with well-to-do Hagenaars or tourists rode back and forth, and from 1864 onwards there was also a horse-tram. Walkers, and therefore fish vendors, also made use of two narrow paths alongside the brick-paved road, and on a summer’s day one could easily imagine being in a pleasant forest. ‘Everything is green all around you; the sun’s rays play their frisky game; the birds sing; leaves whisper; the fresh sea coolness breathes upon you,’ wrote a visitor.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP> Flanking the footpaths were benches where the fish vendors could rest with their heavy loads. </P> <P data-associrn="1404404"></P><P>In the 1870s, genre painters of the Hague School were struck by the fishermen’s wives walking the path, just as Van der Velden was. Jozef Israëls, who served as a highly respected role model for Van der Velden from 1871 onwards, was also actively engaged there at that time. His homeward-bound fish vendor in <EM>The dog cart, Scheveningen Wood</EM> is leading a dog-pulled cart, in which a child’s head sticks out between empty baskets. Scenes like this were also the choice of younger colleagues such as Bernard Blommers and Adolphe Artz. In Blommers’ <EM>The first born</EM>, a young woman presents her baby to two friends, while <EM>A joyful ride</EM> (1876) by Artz shows two children sitting in a handcart pushed by a robust fisherman’s wife. The figures in their canvases and in that of Israëls are more prominent than in those by Van der Velden, and their trees are fully in leaf. For his painting, Van der Velden chose early spring, which gave him the opportunity to use fresh greens for the grass under the trees, and he was the only one to add an attractive vista through the trees. Such details make his image different and even something special.</P> <P><STRONG><FONT size=2>Endnotes</FONT></STRONG></P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2>See Rodney TL Wilson,<EM> Petrus van der Velden</EM> (1837-1913): A catalogue raisonné, Chancery Chambers, Sydney, 1979, vol. 2, nos 1.4.2.4 and 1.4.2.3.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>J van Santen Kolff, ‘Een blik in de Hollandsche schilderschool onzer dagen. II’, <EM>De Banier</EM>, 1 (1875) vol. 2, p. 333.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>JJL ten Kate, ‘De Scheveningsche vischvrouw’, <EM>De Nederlanden. Karakterschetsen, kleederdragten, houding en voorkomen van verschillende standen</EM>, Gravenhage (Nederlandsche Maatschappij van Schoone Kunsten) 1841, p. 13.</FONT></LI></OL><P><FONT size=2><STRONG>Selected bibliography</STRONG><P></FONT><FONT size=2>Corbin, Alain,<EM> The Lure of the Sea: Discovery of the seaside in the western world</EM>, Penguin, London, 1995.<BR>Dekkers, Dieuwertje, ‘The Dutch career of Petrus van der Velden’, in Van der Velden: <EM>Otira</EM>, exhibition catalogue, Christchurch Art Gallery, Christchurch, 2011, pp. 17&#8211;37.<BR>Wilson, TL Rodney,<EM> Petrus van der Velden (1837-1913): A catalogue raisonné</EM>, 2 vols., Chancery Chambers, Sydney, 1979.</FONT> </P>
Petrus van der Velden, &lt;EM&gt;Three figures in a landscape&lt;/EM&gt;, about 1874, charcoal, crayon, and gouache, 364 x 254 mm, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, 1964/22, gift of Morris and Ronald Yock, in memory of their father, 1964
Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki must be obtained before any re-use of this image

Petrus van der Velden, Three figures in a landscape, about 1874, charcoal, crayon, and gouache, 364 x 254 mm, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, 1964/22, gift of Morris and Ronald Yock, in memory of their father, 1964 Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki must be obtained before any re-use of this image

image

Petrus van der Velden, Figure sketches of women at work. From: A Marken sketchbook., circa 1874, charcoal,
Gift of W. Fergusson Hogg, 1967.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Petrus van der Velden, Landscape sketch with figures towing sailing craft. From: A Marken sketchbook., circa 1874, charcoal,
Gift of W. Fergusson Hogg, 1967.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Petrus van der Velden, Landscape with three figures. From: A Marken sketchbook., circa 1874, pencil,
Gift of W. Fergusson Hogg, 1967.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Petrus van der Velden, Landscape sketch with studies of trees. From: A Marken sketchbook., circa 1874, charcoal and pencil,
Gift of W. Fergusson Hogg, 1967.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Petrus van der Velden, &lt;EM&gt;Well laid out&lt;/EM&gt;, 1876, oil on canvas, 1100 x 900 mm, present whereabouts unknown. Photograph by Galerie Gabri&#235;ls, The Hague, 1985

Petrus van der Velden, Well laid out, 1876, oil on canvas, 1100 x 900 mm, present whereabouts unknown. Photograph by Galerie Gabriëls, The Hague, 1985 ,
Image courtesy of Galerie Gabriëls, The Hague, 1985

Adolphe Artz, &lt;EM&gt;A joyful ride&lt;/EM&gt;, 1876, oil on canvas, 480 x 760 mm. Photograph &#169; Sotheby’s Amsterdam, 2007

Adolphe Artz, A joyful ride, 1876, oil on canvas, 480 x 760 mm. Photograph © Sotheby’s Amsterdam, 2007 ,
© Sotheby’s Amsterdam, 2007