(b Leiden, 1633; d London, 6 April 1707).
Son of (1) Willem van de Velde I. Around 1648 Willem II moved to Weesp to study under Simon de Vlieger, whose sombre and atmospheric seascapes were a foil to the more prosaic realism of his father’s work. In 1652 he was back in Amsterdam, where he married Petronella le Maine. The marriage was dissolved a year later. He took up work in his father’s studio, and his earliest paintings were signed by van de Velde the elder as head of the studio. In 1666 Willem II married Magdalena Walraven in Amsterdam. His domestic life and his character remain a mystery.
Willem II had precocious gifts as an artist, and many of his celebrated calm scenes with shipping were painted while he was still in his twenties. The States Yacht in a Fresh Breeze Running down towards a Group of Dutch Ships (1673; London, N. Mar. Mus.; see fig. 1) shows many of the qualities that brought him fame: exquisitely drawn ships, a careful regard for the placing of each vessel to create a satisfying composition and an atmosphere of serene tranquillity. During the next ten years he painted a succession of calms. These usually depict Dutch fishing boats at low tide among the mud banks of Holland’s northern coast. One of the finest examples of these, Calm: A Wijdschip and a Kaag in an Inlet close to a Sea Wall (or Dutch Vessels close Inshore at Low Tide; London, N.G.; has a sky of breathtaking beauty comparable with those of Jacob van Ruisdael and John Constable. Willem the younger was still only 32 when he painted Calm: Dutch Ships Coming to Anchor (London, Wallace), regarded by many as his masterpiece. In this picture he demonstrated that he was as capable of working on a large scale as he was on the much smaller scale of the cabinet picture. The picture was commissioned by Admiral Cornelis Tromp and shows the Liefde, Tromp’s flagship, at the Battle of Lowestoft in 1665.
The subject-matter of van de Velde’s paintings underwent a marked change during the 1670s, after his removal to England. Instead of groups of anonymous fishing boats, he tended to paint portraits of particular ships, such as royal yachts and men-of-war, while storm and shipwreck subjects replace the calms of the 1660s. One reason for this change in mood may have been the influence of Ludolf Bakhuizen, who specialized in dramatic storm scenes. He had settled in Amsterdam in 1649 and soon became a serious rival to the van de Veldes. However the talents of van de Velde the younger were more than equal to the challenge, and in his celebrated The English Ship ‘Resolution’ in a Gale (London, N. Mar. Mus.) he showed that he could paint storms with the same mastery he had brought to calms.
Apart from several paintings depicting the Four Days’ Battle of 1666, Willem II painted few sea battles before coming to England. From 1672 they became a major preoccupation, as both the Duke of York and the King commissioned depictions of English naval actions. After the end of the Anglo-Dutch wars in 1674, he also painted sea battles for Dutch patrons. The greatest of his battle pieces, The ‘Gouden Leeuw’ at the Battle of the Texel (1686; London, N. Mar. Mus.), was commissioned by Admiral Tromp (1629–91), almost certainly for display in Trompenburg, his recently built château near Hilversum.
Unlike his father, Willem II did not make a regular practice of sailing with the Dutch or the English fleets, and the only action of the Anglo-Dutch wars that he is likely to have witnessed was the Four Days’ Battle. All his other battle pictures were painted from sketches made by his father. His working method seems to be illustrated in Michiel van Musscher’s amusing portrait of Willem van de Velde the Younger in his Studio (c. 1665–7; England, Lord Northbrook priv. col., see The Treasure Houses of Britain (exh. cat., ed. G. Jackson-Stops; Washington, DC, N.G.A., 1985), no. 305), in which the artist is shown seated at his easel with drawings of ships scattered on the floor for reference. After the death of his father in 1693, however, it became necessary for van de Velde the younger to be present himself at important maritime events, and an order from the English Admiralty dated 18 May 1694 indicates his official role. Soon afterwards he joined the fleet commanded by Admiral Russell and spent a year in the Mediterranean.
No longer subject to his father’s obsession with accuracy, Willem II adopted a freer approach in his later work. His brushwork became fluid and open, and some of his smaller pictures have something of the immediacy of oil sketches, in contrast to the highly finished state of his earlier works. His last major work was the Calm: The ‘Royal Sovereign’ at Anchor (1703; London, N. Mar. Mus.). Less dramatic than the similar, though more celebrated Cannon Shot (c. 1660; Amsterdam, Rijksmus.; see fig. 2), it shows no weakening of the artist’s power. The drawing of the principal ship is as masterful as ever, the smaller vessels are grouped with his usual skill, and the great expanse of cloudy sky is painted with the utmost subtlety.