Willem van de Velde II came from one of the greatest seventeenth century families of Dutch masters; his father, Willem van de Velde I (1611-1693), was a first rate draughtsman of marines, whose love of the sea and ships was inherited by his youngest son. Adriaen van de Velde (1636-1672), Willem II's older brother, excelled in the pastoral landscape. Willem II was influenced by his father, and, especially in the early part of his career, also by his contemporaries, Simon de Vlieger and Abraham van Beyeren.
Willem II’s early works are highly finished and carefully crafted. As he matured, his style broadened and he achieved his effects with a greater economy of brushstrokes. His palette also evolved from the earlier predominant grays and blues to the warmer browns of his English period. Willem II was also a draughtsman throughout his career, and he continuously executed highly detailed renderings of ships and other scenes as studies for his paintings. His ships are portrayed with an almost photographic accuracy, and are the most precise guides available for the appearance of 17th century ships. Willem van de Velde II enjoyed enormous success in his lifetime, with royal patronage from King Charles II of England.
Our painting, Dutch Ships in a Fresh Breeze off the Coast, is a remarkable example by the master from his early period and, in fact, it is one of his earliest dated known works; the artist was an astonishing fifteen years of age when he completed this piece. This marine painting documents the extent to which van de Velde was influenced by Vlieger and van Beyeren when he first executed large scale works, and is indicative of his developing genius. With the land still visible at the left background, the ships set sail for chartered territories on a turbulent sea with white-capped waves and billowy grey clouds above. The ship in the left foreground has been identified as either a galjoot or a wijdschip, port bow view. On the right is a small ship, starboard bow view, under the fore course and mizzen. This smaller ship is sailing the common Dutch flag at the main. Finally, in the far distance on the right of the picture plane is another galjoot or wijdschip. Less visibly, one can spot the sails of a few more ships. The boats tilt and turn, heightening the impending doom of the stormy atmosphere, though a shaft of sunlight falls across the area between two ships on the left hand side. The Dutch coast is shown in the left distance with fishing pinks on the shore; a square tower is also indicated in the dunes, probably the church tower of Egmond aan Zee. The composition is rendered with precise brushstrokes and fine details, especially notable in the whitecaps of the splashing water, the meticulous rigging on the ship masts and the wind blown sails.