Thursday 3 April 2014
Not many people know Petrus Van Der Velden and Vincent Van Gogh were friends. They were intimate enough for Van Gogh to write about Van Der Velden in three letters to his brother Theo. I had their friendship in mind when, recently, I acquired for the Gallery's collection the final photo-portrait of Van Der Velden made by Stanley Andrew at Wellington during 1909.
Andrew was Wellington's most active official portraitist prior to World War I and 95 of his negatives are held at Wellington's Alexander Turnbull Library. Artists like Eileen Duggan, Anna Pavlova and Dorothy Kate Richmond were recorded by Andrew. Yet, it appears that Petrus Van Der Velden was the earliest artist to commission a portrait while Andrew was a photographer. He began his career using a quasi-pictorialist, almost moody style. Later he refined this expressionist approach into one with a deeper focus and less gradation in overall lighting. This results in a more flattering response to your subjects and they often don't look their age.
I was attracted to the portrait of Van Der Velden not only for its physical quality but because it reveals the difficulties and strain that living in New Zealand as a full time artist had been for him. He had a tetchy temperament and did not like the fact that the art scene here was nowhere as modern as what he knew in the Holland which he had departed from.
Modern art reached New Zealand with the arrival of James Nairn and Van Der Velden in 1890. Both were full-time artists and they wanted to maintain a serious and professional career. Van Der Velden was determined and opinionated but we simply do not know, as Rodney Wilson has noted, why the painter immigrated to New Zealand.
The Canterbury College School of Art in Christchurch refused to give him employment, not a surprising decision due to its insular suspicion of outsiders. Consequently, Van Der Velden became an itinerant immigrant – living 8 years in Christchurch, 6 years in Sydney and 9 years in Wellington.
The first image here is the vintage print that Auckland Art Gallery has recently purchased, with the original photographers' tinted paper and strawcard mounting mattes. It is signed at left by the photographer and has the Stanley Andrew blind-stamp at the lower right hand side of the print.
Here is a cropped contact print of the variant Stanley Andrew portrait made at the same time. It is taken from the negative held in the Alexander Turnbull Library in the National Library of New Zealand. He appears more animated than the portrait which we acquired, but his head appears to large for the body and is distorted in scale.
This is an entire uncropped scan of the negative of the portrait that the Gallery has acquired. Note how the hands have been cropped out to give provide more prominence to the artist's face. It is almost heroic in its final cropped version. I believe that he made this version for his family's own use and not for any form of self-promotion.
Am I correct in noting that Petrus Van Der Velden was a friend of Vincent Van Gogh? Or was he simply one of his acquaintances? I keep coming back to the conclusion that he was a friend; especially judging from tone of Vincent's comments about Petrus included in three letters that he wrote to his brother Leo.
On Wednesday 1 November 1882 Vincent comments on seeing two drawings by Pieter (Petrus) in the magazine De Zwaluw.
On, or about, Saturday 21 April 1883, Vincent notes: "I met Van der V. once, and he made a good impression on me at the time. I was reminded of the character of Felix Holt the radical by Eliot. There’s something broad and rough in him that pleases me greatly — something like the roughness of torchon. A man who evidently doesn’t seek civilization in outward things but is much further inwardly, much much much further than most people. In short, he’s a true artist, and I’d like to get to know him for I would trust him and I’m sure I would learn from him."
On, or about, Wednesday 11 July 1883, Vincent writes "I saw Van der Velden once last year — at De Bock’s one evening when we looked at etchings. I’ve already written to you that he made a very favorable impression on me at the time, although he said little and wasn’t much company that evening. But the impression he immediately made on me was that he was a solid, genuine painter."
All of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters have been translated into English and are available to read online.
On 9 July 1896, Lawrence Jones of Dunedin reproduced the following early portrait of Petrus Van Der Velden. (I am grateful to the wonderful blog Early Otago Photographers for this image). Van Der Velden was aged 59 years and about to become a New Zealand citizen, but he was not prospering as a fulltime artist and had almost halved his fee for private life classes (based on 13 sessions of 2.5 hours each). There is a vast difference between this first portrait of Van Der Velden in New Zealand and the final one which we have acquired.