VELDE, Willem van de, the Younger
(b. 1633, Leiden, d. 1707, London)

The Cannon Shot

c. 1670
Oil on canvas, 79 x 67 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Willem van der Velde the Younger was first trained in the Amsterdam studio of his father, Willem the Elder, who was a distinguished ship 'portraitist'. Willem the Elder specialized in pensehilderijen, pen drawings of ships on panel or canvas made in a manner similar to engravings. Subsequently his son completed his training with Simon de Vlieger, the marine painter, in Weesp. Willem the Younger then joined his father in his studio and continued to live and work in Amsterdam until 1672. In that year, the so-called rampjaar, the French invasion of the Netherlands caused such economic chaos that painters found it difficult to earn a living. (Vermeer was also among the many Dutch artists who experienced financial hardship at this time.)

Both father and son moved to England and in 1674 were taken into the service of Charles II: the warrant of appointment states that each is to be paid a hundred pounds a year, in addition to payments for their pictures, the father for 'taking and making of Draughts of seafights' and the son for 'putting the said Draughts into colours'. One important early royal commission was for designs for tapestries commemorating the Battle of Solebay. They lived for the rest of their lives in England, working in their studio at the Queen's House, Greenwich, for Charles II, James II and members of their courts.

This study of a man-of-war firing a cannon - as a signal, rather than in battle - was painted in about 1670, shortly before van de Velde left Amsterdam for London. Rather than a seascape, it is essentially a 'portrait' of the ship. In his later years Willem the Younger employed numerous assistants and the quality of his work declined, but this picture is entirely from his own hand and displays the remarkable atmospheric effects of which he was capable.

The firing of guns depicted in the present painting was known as a salute shot, a naval tradition well established by the late sixteenth century. A ship, upon entering port, would discharge all its guns to show that they were empty and because the reloading process was so time-consuming, the ship was effectively defenceless as it came into range of the shore batteries. It was, therefore, a recognised indicator of friendly intent. These salutes always involved an odd number of guns as naval superstition held odd numbers to be lucky and an even number of guns was fired only in times of mourning.