Thinking on Petrus van der Velden and the Rijksmuseum

Last weekend, on Saturday the 13th April 2013, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam reopened to the public after a decade of renovations. Imagine that, ten years to perfect your vision and build a new experience for the visitor from the ground up.

The Rijksmuseum is an iconic art museum that is home to an impressive array of art and history from the middle ages to the present day. It is particularly strong in works from the Netherlands: those solitary studies of female figures by Vermeer; the drama of Rembrandt; the emotions of van Gogh.

See Zelfportret, Vincent van Gogh, 1887, on the Rijksmuseum website

It made me think on the place that the Dutch artist Petrus van der Velden (1837-1913) might have held in this culture, if he hadn’t emigrated here in 1890 and been claimed for New Zealand art history as one of our own.

Van der Velden in Holland

Van der Velden was a member of the Hague School in Holland, and studied under Josef Israels, whose work he emulated.

Petrus van der Velden, Interior of a Marken Fisherman’s cottage, circa 1871, oil on canvas, Te Papa (1936-0012-119)

Petrus van der Velden, Interior of a Marken Fisherman’s cottage, circa 1871, oil on canvas, Te Papa (1936-0012-119)

Compare this with Israel’s painting in the Rijksmuseum: See ‘Moederweelde’, Jozef Israëls, 1890 on the Rijksmuseum website

Van der Velden had one work purchased for the state collections of the Rijksmuseum in 1880, the second version of a painting called Double Blank, 1878. It is still part of their collections, but I have been frustrated in my attempts to find a record of it on their new website.

In a letter to his brother, Theo, Vincent van Gogh wrote favourably of van der Velden, stating ‘there is something manly and powerful in him, even though he doesn’t say or do anything in particular. I hope to come into closer contact with him someday…’

Van der Velden in New Zealand

Unfortunately they didn’t meet again, but this was to our advantage. Van der Velden’s arrival brought with it a much needed dose of the avant garde to these far flung lands. He showed New Zealanders what it meant to be an artist, the commitment and passion required. This was what most impressed Peter Tomory, art historian and director of Auckland Art Gallery who wrote:

…as he painted, his style broadened into a powerful expression and the molten anger of his heart found an expressive catharsis in the molten geology of New Zealand.

‘The Visual Arts’, in Distance looks our way: the effects of remoteness on New Zealand, edited by Keith Sinclair, p. 70

Van der Velden, Mountain Stream, Otira Gorge, circa 1893, oil on canvas on cardboard. Gift of Sir Charles Norwood, 1936 (1936-0001-1)

Van der Velden, Mountain Stream, Otira Gorge, circa 1893, oil on canvas on cardboard. Gift of Sir Charles Norwood, 1936 (1936-0001-1)

Van der Velden’s legacy

Thinking on van der Velden in the wake of the re-opening of the Rijksmuseum raises several questions for me. Why did he leave the Netherlands if it seemed he was gaining esteem in the art world in the 1880s? How might he have progressed differently in his art had he stayed in the Netherlands – would he have found the impetus that the New Zealand landscape seemed to provide to push forward in his work? Alternately, has the fact that we have taken him on board as such a key figure in our art history denied him earning a place in the art history of the Netherlands?

Van der Velden died 100 years ago on the 11 November 2013. Currently, you can see three works by him as part of the exhibition ‘Framing the view’ in Ngā Toi | Arts Te Papa on level 5.

See the ‘Framing the view’ exhibition on the Ngā Toi | Arts Te Papa exhibition website

We hope to honour van der Velden more properly in a dedicated hang later in the year.

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