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Abra­ham de Ver­w­er, Dutch, c. 1585-1650: Ships on a Calm Sea, c. 1640-50 

A study in atmos­phere and spa­tial effects, Abra­ham de Ver­w­er’s seascape draw­ing demon­strates his tech­ni­cal skill as a drafts­man. The low, long hori­zon line and empty sky impart a sense of vast­ness while the minute­ly ren­dered town in the dis­tance sug­gests great depth. To con­vey con­trast and form, and to per­haps indi­cate the light of dawn, De Ver­w­er sub­tly com­bined red­dish-brown ink with touch­es of gray wash. 

This is the only draw­ing in the Peck Col­lec­tion to be made on ledger or cash­book paper with pre-ruled lines. Vis­i­ble on the back of the sheet, a print­ed red line may have helped De Ver­w­er gen­er­ate such a pre­cise hori­zon line.

Although less well-known today, and cer­tain­ly deserv­ing of more schol­ar­ly atten­tion, Abra­ham de Ver­w­er was a suc­cess­ful marine artist who pro­duced large and dra­mat­ic seascape paint­ings, topo­graph­ic sketch­es, and fin­ished draw­ings of great visu­al power. De Ver­w­er start­ed his career as a cab­i­net­mak­er in Haar­lem before becom­ing an Ams­ter­dam-based artist, one who trav­eled exten­sive­ly in north­ern Europe and cre­at­ed a num­ber of views of French cities in par­tic­u­lar.1

In the Nether­lands, he count­ed among his patrons the Admi­ral­ty of Ams­ter­dam, which com­mis­sioned a large Bat­tle of Gibral­tar for a sig­nif­i­cant sum. The Prince of Orange, Fred­erik Hen­drik (1584 – 1647), pur­chased two of his his­tor­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant paint­ings of the Lou­vre in 1639.2

De Ver­w­er’s sur­viv­ing cor­pus of draw­ings is mod­est, but groups of them can be found in the British Muse­um, Lon­don, and in the Her­zog Anton Ulrich Muse­um, Braun­schweig, many of which are topo­graph­ic sketch­es from his trav­els.3

For the present work, De Ver­w­er cre­at­ed a sense of vast space by employ­ing a long, flat hori­zon that sits low in the com­po­si­tion. The minute­ly ren­dered town in the dis­tance rein­forces the sen­sa­tion of deep reces­sion across the water, as well as the pro­gres­sive­ly lighter and thin­ner hor­i­zon­tal brush­strokes. The empty sky enhances the vast­ness of space through its com­plete blank­ness, a tech­nique already in use by Haar­lem land­scape artists of De Ver­w­er’s gen­er­a­tion such as Esa­ias van de Velde (1587 – 1630). Despite the inher­ent calm con­veyed by the level sea and cloud­less sky, enough wind blows to fill sev­er­al of the sails, and the boat in the cen­ter fore­ground appears to be under­way at a good pace.

Given his use of a dis­tinc­tive red­dish-brown ink (with touch­es of gray for sub­tle con­trast and struc­ture), it is pos­si­ble De Ver­w­er intend­ed a twi­light scene here, per­haps dawn when calm seas and open skies pre­dom­i­nate in coastal waters early in the day. He used the same appeal­ing tone of ink for a draw­ing in Moscow with the same dimen­sions and a sim­i­lar­ly placed hori­zon line and open sky.4

This unsigned sheet in Moscow has had attri­bu­tion issues in the past, being first ascribed to Allaert van Everdin­gen (1621 – 1675) and then to Pieter Coopse (c. 1640 – 1673) before Charles Dumas and Michiel Plomp each sug­gest­ed, cor­rect­ly, De Ver­w­er.5

The attri­bu­tion can be con­firmed with the Peck draw­ing, which bears an auto­graph sig­na­ture (trimmed but just vis­i­ble in the lower right). These two appear to be com­pan­ion draw­ings made around the same time. De Ver­w­er made anoth­er draw­ing of com­pa­ra­ble dimen­sions using red­dish-brown ink that was for­mer­ly in the Ingram Col­lec­tion, its present where­abouts unknown.6

De Ver­w­er also exe­cut­ed a num­ber of water­col­or draw­ings of sim­i­lar dimen­sions and sub­ject mat­ter: two in the Fon­da­tion Cus­to­dia, one in Göt­tin­gen, one in the Teylers Muse­um, and one in a pri­vate col­lec­tion (ex-Hof­st­ede de Groot) in the Nether­lands.7

Clouds appear in the lat­ter two works, but these may have been added later.8

It is notable that De Ver­w­er drew most of this group on ledger or cash­book paper (kas­boek­pa­pi­er).9

He also used this type of paper with pre-ruled lines for the present sheet, with one of the red­dish lines clear­ly vis­i­ble on the verso.10

De Ver­w­er’s rea­sons for adopt­ing this paper are unclear, but we can prob­a­bly reject the notion that the artist found him­self ship­board with no prop­er sup­plies on hand, and acquired what paper he could from the bur­sar or cap­tain dur­ing a moment of inspi­ra­tion. Instead, many of these fin­ished draw­ings appear to have been care­ful­ly worked up in the stu­dio. The use of ledger book paper, whether due to cer­tain prop­er­ties it pos­sessed or the sim­ple con­ve­nience of avail­abil­i­ty, can be found among other artists, Rem­brandt includ­ed, though it remains an under­stud­ied topic.11

In the case of a broad seascape image such as this one, the ledger line on the verso of the sheet sits below the hori­zon and may have pro­vid­ed a use­ful aid in gen­er­at­ing such a pre­cise­ly ren­dered effect. 

While this sheet belongs to a group of draw­ings that were like­ly made in the same peri­od, dat­ing them remains dif­fi­cult. Most of his dated sheets stem­ming from his trav­els in the mid- to late 1630s are sketch­i­er in appear­ance and more topo­graph­ic in func­tion. The present sheet most like­ly dates to the 1640s, the last decade of his career, when De Ver­w­er appears to have con­fined his trav­els to the water­ways in and around the Nether­lands. In terms of iden­ti­fy­ing the town in the dis­tance, the sug­ges­tions of Vlissin­gen by Franklin Robin­son, and of Dor­drecht (by an anony­mous mod­ern hand on the verso) both seem plau­si­ble.12

Any topo­graph­ic real­i­ty of the bare­ly dis­cernible town, how­ev­er, is over­rid­den by the image’s true func­tion as a study of atmos­pher­ic effects at sea and the evoca­tive per­spec­ti­val poten­tial of such a setting.

End Notes

  1. For an overview of De Verwer’s career and works, see Bol 1973, 84 – 88; Prud’homme van Reine 1992, 60 – 62; and Rot­ter­dam & Berlin 1996 – 97, 133.

  2. For the Admi­ral­ty com­mis­sion, see Van Gelder 1947; for his trav­els in France and the Lou­vre paint­ings, see espe­cial­ly Alsteens & Buijs 2008, 247 – 56, with fur­ther references.

  3. For the British Muse­um draw­ings, see Hind 1915 – 32, vol. 4, 89 – 90, nos. 1 – 11. The Braun­schweig draw­ings are unpub­lished but see inv. nos. Z 1273 through Z 1280, many bear­ing dates of 1636 or 1637.

  4. Sad­kov 2010, 268, no. 426, list­ed as Attrib­uted to Abra­ham de Verwer.”

  5. Idem.

  6. See the exhi­bi­tion cat­a­logue of the Ingram Col­lec­tion, Rot­ter­dam & Ams­ter­dam 1961 – 62, 88, no. 105: Ships on the IJ before Ams­ter­dam, pen and ink and red/​brown wash, 158 × 280 mm (not reproduced).

  7. For the Fon­da­tion Cus­to­dia draw­ings, see Paris 1989, 74 – 75, nos. 73 – 74, pls. 32 – 33; for the Göt­tin­gen draw­ing, see Koblenz, Göt­tin­gen, Old­en­burg & Frank­furt 2000, 182, no. 70; for the Teylers draw­ing, see Plomp 1997, 422, no. 498; and for the ex-Hof­st­ede de Groot draw­ing, see Beck­er 1923, no. 39.

  8. The clouds in the Teylers draw­ing have a dis­tinc­tive­ly eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry char­ac­ter, as noted in Plomp 1997, 422; while those in the ex-Hof­st­ede de Groot draw­ing seem slight­ly less so, but nev­er­the­less may have been added later.

  9. It has not been pos­si­ble to con­firm the use of cash­book paper for the ex-Hof­st­ede de Groot draw­ing, but the oth­ers in the group, in the Fon­da­tion Cus­to­dia, Göt­tin­gen, and the Teylers Muse­um, are all doc­u­ment­ed as such in the respec­tive entries for these draw­ings list­ed in note 7, above.

  10. The use of cash­book paper went unnot­ed in the pre­vi­ous lit­er­a­ture on this draw­ing, though Michiel Plomp already linked it styl­is­ti­cal­ly with other sheets on this paper; see Plomp 1997, 422, under no. 498.

  11. For exam­ples of Rembrandt’s use of kas­boek­pa­pi­er for his draw­ings, see Schat­born & Hin­ter­d­ing 2019, nos. D455, D654, D655. For a the­o­ry about his use of it for the lat­ter two draw­ings, see Bin­stock 2003.

  12. For the sug­ges­tion of Vlissin­gen, see Chapel Hill, Itha­ca & Worces­ter 1999– 2001, 108 – 09, no. 37. For De Verwer’s reli­ably labeled sketch of Vlissin­gen (observed clos­er up) in the Vic­to­ria & Albert Muse­um, see Turn­er & White 2014, 338 – 39, no. 407. For Dor­drecht, De Ver­w­er also depict­ed the city in a topo­graph­ic draw­ing in the British Muse­um; Hind 1915 – 32, vol. 4, 89, no. 5.