Adriaen Van de Velde (1636-1672) was a highly successful Dutch landscape painter from an artistic family (both his father and older brother were painters) who became widely known for his fine draughtsmanship before his untimely death at the age of 35. Van de Velde lived at the height of the Dutch Golden Age, when the young, trade-fuelled Republic was one of the wealthiest nations in Europe and a huge art open market came to exist, widely commented on in the rest of the continent and populated by figures like Jan Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn or Frans Hals. The heavy competition pushed painters to specialise in a handful of genres popular with the public and Van de Velde would become famous for his idealised landscapes and pastoral scenes.
The current exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (Adriaen Van de Velde: Dutch Master of Landscape, 12/10/2016 – 15/01/2017) may not be massive in size but, by displaying drawings and preparatory work alongside finished pieces, offers fascinating insights into Van de Velde's creative processes (and those of fellow painters in the old master tradition). Not arranged in chronological order, the exhibition starts by introducing Van de Velde's painting through a series of seascapes presided by the beautiful 1658 The Beach at Scheveningen (Staatliche Museen Kassel, Hessen). The exhibition's second room is arranged around The Hut (1671, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), a beautiful pastoral scene considered from early on as a jewel of Golden Age painting. Van de Velde was an outstanding draughtsman with a finely honed knowledge of human and animal anatomy and, from early on in his career, he was employed by other artists to paint human and animal figures into their own compositions. As shown in the exhibition, Van de Velde drew incessantly, building up a collection of figures which he could then insert verbatim into his genre pieces. The exhibition also shows how Van de Velde would go about developing a composition for a painting, starting perhaps from a simpler pen and ink sketch which would evolve into a fully developed drawing known as a modello (model) which served as a plan for the painting (and which could itself be sold as an independent work of art once the painting was complete- In fact a parallel market for highly finished drawings and watercolours existed and the exhibition shows some beautiful examples of Van de Velde's output).
The second half of the exhibition contains many outstanding examples, large and small, of Van de Velde's genre painting. Besides his draughtsmanship and his beautiful sense of narrative, these works show Van de Velde's masterful use of light and shadow to arrange his compositions and lead the viewer's eye. In a gloomy clearing, the dappled light falls on a few people and animals who become the foci of the scene. A hunting party emerges from a dark recess of the forest, the slanting sunlight illuminating and bringing forward the main protagonists.
Adriaen Van de Velde: Dutch Master of Landscape is a hugely instructive offering and makes for a great day out in the festive season. Catch it if you happen to be in or around London and enjoy it alongside the first-rate permanent collection of this outstanding space in the South of the metropolis -And don't miss the free Am I Rembrandt? display (08/11/2016 – 05/03/2017), part of Dulwich Picture Gallery's Making Discoveries series dedicated to Dutch and Flemish masters in the museum's collection.