-- by Kathryn Koca
Born into an artistic family, Jan van de Velde II (1593-1641) was encouraged to develop his talent in an inspirational and supportive creative environment. Van de Velde's parents moved to Rotterdam a few years prior to his birth, but later relocated to Haarlem where Jan "the younger" would learn skill in many forms of art. He, along with brother Willem and cousin Esaias van de Velde, developed his craft in Haarlem. His father, a master calligrapher, had strong intentions for Jan to be taught by a draughtsman. Jacob Matham, stepson of Hendrik Goltzius, instructed Jan in engraving in 1613 and a year later he became a member of Haarlem's artists' guild of St. Luke. Although art historians still consider him a truly underrated printmaker, he produced over five hundred prints during his career and works such as Peasants and Goats near Ruins (c.1615) demonstrate Van de Velde's skill in creating picturesque etched views near Haarlem.
Focusing on rural life and everyday domestic genre scenes, he frequently based his drawings and etchings on other Baroque artists, either copying their works or borrowing motifs for his own compositions. He reproduced the works of such artists as Willem Buytewech, Frans Hals and even his cousin Esaias. Buytewech's and Van de Velde's prints have a number of stylistic and thematic similarities, but Van de Velde's landscapes reflect a keen appreciation of nature and the rustic countryside that was not emphasized in other Dutch artists' works. Van de Velde's landscapes tend to present an historic devotion to the ancient Dutch world combined with a prosaic emotional response to nature.
A combination of pictorial simplicity and technical inventiveness attracts the viewer to Van de Velde's etchings. Rembrandt's chiaroscuro can be seen in "Peasants and Goats near Ruins," in which the contrast of light and dark sparks life and drama in a simple and tranquil ruin scene. Utilizing clear lines and delicate stippling, Van de Velde depicts the ruins and surrounding low landscape in a straightforward manner. Like other Dutch Baroque landscapists, Van de Velde favored a narrow horizontal format for his prints as a way to emphasize the low, expansive terrain surrounding Haarlem. The unadorned natural landscape inhabited by deteriorating ruins and the figure of a peasant gives a realistic glimpse of a quick moment in time, when life and nature are in harmony. Within this print, he appropriated many techniques from his cousin Esaias, such as the design of a low horizon, landscape forms framing the picture, and open flowing lines to evoke a clear translucent light in the broad sky above the receding landscape. Also linked to Esaias' influence, the artist often executed his landscape etchings with sharp linear details added with engraving. The fluent vertical and horizontal hatchings are indicative of Van de Velde's unique printmaking technique. In addition, Van de Velde's landscape prints reflect a whimsical, inventive approach to his empirical study of nature. It is documented that Van de Velde made an artistic sojourn to Italy in 1617 and he also visited other northern countries like Germany. Traveling to other regions not only influenced Van de Velde's style, but made him aware of the topographic and cultural diversity of the 17th century world and he felt the viewer would appreciate more fanciful etched views integrating the flat Dutch landscape with mountainous vistas along the Rhine and Mosell rivers.
Although the exact date of Peasant and Goats Near Ruins is not known, it may have been executed during the 1610s, when Van de Velde produced numerous prints depicting landscapes with architectural ruins, such as his Dead Tree Among Ruins (1615). The inclusion of ruins in the pastoral landscape in Peasant and Goats Near Ruins has a variety of cultural and symbolic references. As with the Ruisdael and Lorrain landscape prints in this exhibition, the decaying ruins of the once monumental building in Van de Velde's etching may function as a vanitas emblem referring to the powerful forces of nature and time against the noble achievements of human culture. However, the depiction of a lone peasant resting with his herd of goats amidst the grandeur of the ruins introduces the symbolic theme of nostalgic reverie on the glories of the ancient past. Rather than purely moralizing vanitas, the juxtaposition of the ruins and the rustic labor of the peasant may also allude to cultural traditions in Holland and the importance of maintaining a continuity between the country's prosperous present and its exalted customs and history. Indeed, the inclusion of dignified ruins may function primarily as a sign of pride in the noble Dutch past. Moreover, as with the theme of the cavalier in Raeven's print, the beauty of the Dutch landscape coupled with the massive fortified building may function as a nationalistic emblem signifying Dutch pride during the early 17th century in winning their country through a defensive victory against Spain. The multiplicity of allegorical meanings in Peasant and Goats Near Ruins not only attests to Van de Velde's inventiveness in combining symbolic motifs, but also reveals the emblematic richness of the Dutch Baroque landscape tradition.