Adriaen van de Velde, 'Figures on the beach at Scheveningen', 1660. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015.
Adriaen van de Velde, 'The Angel appearing to the Shepherds'. © The Trustees of The British Museum.
Van de Velde’s story is one no self-respecting millennial wants to hear: he was a child prodigy, painted fast and died young aged 35 in 1672. By 22 he was creating pristine beachscapes and was so renowned for his figure-drawing skills that other artists of the Dutch Golden Age roped him in to work on their paintings so they wouldn’t be left with stick men. At one time, Van de Velde’s paintings were worth more than Rembrandt’s. If any totally obscure Dutch landscape artist deserves a whole show dedicated to them, it’s him.
An entire room at this exhibition centres on one painting: ‘The Hut’, an innocuous scene of two farm workers, a masticating cow and some sleepy sheep going about their day. Surrounding the work are the obsessive studies he made for the painting’s composition: detailed drawings of the animals in red chalk floating mid-page and the hut itself painted over and over with precise detail in pen and ink. This room is not so much about the painting, as the demystification of it; who knew that realist Dutch style didn’t come so easily? In a way it’s disappointing to find out that, as with most talented people, it was practice that got him there.
Van de Velde’s paintings mostly celebrate the quiet pilgrim life, where men ride on horseback and busty shepherdesses sit around looking nervous. This show is about his landscapes, but the real story is in his figures. His paintings are like film stills documenting Dutch life in the 1600s. Instead of standing back to take in each bucolic scene, you find yourself with your nose to the canvas, inspecting the detail.
The show gets a bit too academic at times, unpicking Van de Velde’s technique instead of delving into his story. We never really learn why he fell out of favour in the twentieth century, and there’s not a great deal made of the religious art he created after marrying a Catholic in an age of Dutch Calvinism. But it is meant to be about his landscapes, after all, and there’s something admirable about the gallery’s commitment to these slow-burning rural scenes. Look closely, and you’ll see those nervous shepherdesses have a story worth telling.