Petrus van der Velden
The Marken and Otira Series

RODNEY WILSON

It is fairly widely-known that Petrus van der Velden arrived in New Zealand in 1890, and that he was the painter of the remarkable Otira works to be found in a number of public and private collections. What is less well-known is that Van der Velden was already a mature painter, of some twenty-three years' experience, by 1890; and that he had acquired a reputation for his genre works - especially those of the fisher-folk from the island of Marken - prior to his departure.

Van der Velden had a tendency to work in series. He was initially, for a period of three to four years (from 1867 to 1871) a marine painter. Later in the 'seventies he pursued the theme of a downtrodden woman gathering wood in the dunes at Dongen (a lithograph of one of these had been published in the 1877 Kunstkroniek - and Van Gogh had admired him as an illustrator). Both before and after his arrival in Christchurch he busied himself with the theme of musicians. In Sydney he worked on harbour subjects. In Wellington he systematically pursued such themes as cows and cattle, mother and child (his second wife and their daughter Melba) and The Aim of all Existence, a resuscitated Dunes at Dongen subject.

There were these and more: but the two chief cycles with which he was to concern himself were Otira (from 1891) and Marken (from 1871 until well into the seventies). With these works, different in subject but close in intention, we see more that with any others the artist systematically pursuing a subject and achieving consistently monumental results.

In Otira Van der Velden's vision is a pantheistic one. Nature is endowed with a spiritual intensity and man feels helpless before brooding skies and crashing waters. Otira knows sunlight, albeit infrequent, and Van der Velden permits us to know it at lighter moments: but the cycle is characterised almost exclusively by the one mood of melancholy.

PETRUS VAN DER VELDEN Dutch Girl in Pink
oil, 44.5 x 34.3 cm (collection of Rosemary Muller, Auckland)

The Marken works are less gloomy, more varied, and more extensive. The artist first visited this former island in the Zuyder Zee, now connected to the mainland by a causeway, in 1871. In that year and in the following two years he visited the community on several occasions to obtain material for his painting. It seems that he did not return after 1873: but he did continue to paint subjects drawn from the life of the distinctive fishing community resident there.

Van der Velden, first a lithographer and then a marine painter, had trained himself in the careful topographical draughtsmanship which for two and a half centuries had formed a necessary skill for a painter of that essentially Dutch category of painting, the marine subject. When he came to the island he brought that careful vision with him. It was later to be replaced by a looser, more sketchy manner: but for those early years in the 'seventies we are fortunate in having at our disposal both works which are sensitively drawn, accurately described, yet handling masses with an exciting simplicity and breadth, and others characterised by a more fluid, more painterly treatment.

In charcoal, pencil, watercolour, bistre and oil Van der Velden recorded the lives and customs of a particular regional folk. The subjects range over portrait studies, wedding processions, the market stalls, the streets, the touring 'Games Man' and the funeral cycle. Recently a watercolour by Van der Velden drew appreciative attention in the Netherlands, both for its quality and for its unique character as a record of this traditional community, now spoiled by the excessive attentions of tourism.

PETRUS VAN DER VELDEN Mount Rolleston c1893
oil, 94 x 117 cm (collection of the Bishop Suter Art Gallery, Nelson)

Tradition has it that during one of Van der Velden's visits to the island a fisherman was drowned. It seems likely that it was this incident that was to cause him to consider the possibilities of a cycle of works devoted to the theme of a funeral. The underlying idea is that, as with Otira, man is ultimately help- less against nature's forces: we can only struggle and then submit as our puny efforts are crushed by the onslaught of wind and tide.

The Dutchman knows that his country, more than any other has been wrested from the sea; and the sea is always there waiting to take it back. The Markers know they are vulnerable: before the Zuyder Zee was sealed off from the North Sea between the wars, the sea was a frequent intruder into town and home, and each day father and son rode to do battle with the elements in order to provide their community with sustenance and income.

It was Van der Velden's intention to remind us in the funeral works that life is an infinitesimally tiny drop in the ocean of eternal time, and that possession of it is a privilege to be enjoyed but ultimately surrendered.

Only six major paintings are known of funeral subjects: four show the coffin being transported by barge. Two of these are in the collection of the National Art Gallery, Wellington, one in the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, and a fourth in a Christchurch private collection. Two paintings show the coffin being transported by sledge along the ice of a frozen canal. One of these hangs as the McDougall Gallery's chief exhibit- a sort of Christchurch Night Watch with an immense public following. The other, smaller and more colourful, with its figures located closer to the picture plane, is currently on exhibition at the Peter Webb Galleries.

PETRUS VAN DER VELDEN, Marken Funeral Procession c1872
oil, 52.8 x 75.8 cm (private collection)

Studies exist for the sledge and some of the figures: also for the general distribution of the figures. The one illustrated here, dated 1872, a year before a Marken interior with domino-playing figures was acquired by the Rijksmuseum in 1873, shows the wooden houses of the village and the church, with its curious tower recognisable in the background of all the funeral works.

It was these works more than any others that gave Van der Velden his local reputation. They also formed a decisive turning point in his career when Isaac Israels, the early leader of the Hague school community, invited Van der Velden to join his Pulchri studio group in 1875. Israels' decision was motivated by a successful exhibition of Marken works, including the funeral pieces. Van der Velden was to go on to paint other subjects: but Marken remains the nucleus of his Dutch period and the earliest, most profound manifestation of the ideas present in the New Zealand Otira cycle.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 1 August/September 1976