You’ve just bought a picture. You’re proud and excited. You call your friends and giddily tell them "I’ve just bought an Abraham de Verwer!" There’s a long pause.
"He’s a 17th-century Dutch maritime painter. Boats and water, you know. And this one. . . . hello? Hello?"
Dejected, you then call your friend who loves Dutch pictures from Rembrandt to Ruysdael. "Abraham de Verwer? Why’d you buy him? He’s so minor. And he’s kinda lousy, too. You’re nuts!"
Though generally disregarded today, during his lifetime de Verwer was considerably esteemed. Born in Haarlem ca. 1585, it is probable he was a student of the maritime master Hendrick Vroom. After de Verwer moved to Amsterdam, he was much patronized by the Admiralty, which turned to him in 1621 (after Vroom asked for too much money) for The Battle of Gibraltar, a painting commemorating a 1607 naval victory over the Spanish fleet.
In the late 1630s, de Verwer was sent to Paris on a commission by Prince Frederick of Nassau to paint several topographical views of the city, including a view of the Louvre. Several of these pictures are in the Musée Carnavalet, yet the artist is surprisingly unrepresented in the Louvre’s extensive collection of Dutch paintings. After his return to Amsterdam, de Werver seems to have painted very little. He died in 1650.
Today, de Verwer usually gets only a brief mention in most surveys of 17th-century Dutch painting, and in a hot market for Dutch Old Masters, he seems to be that rare artist that nobody really wants. His pictures are usually cheap. The record auction price for the artist is $54,000 for A Dutch States Yacht on a River Estuary, paid at Phillips London in 1996, but three years ago, Sotheby’s Olympia was unable to get £5,000 for a View of a Dutch Coastal Town.
Most American collectors -- and certainly most American museums -- would not seriously consider buying a work by a very obscure, and cheap, Dutch artist known to only a small group of specialists. Yet every so often such a painter can surprise, producing a masterpiece hitherto thought beyond his powers. Such is the case of de Werver’s remarkable View of Hoorn (ca. 1645) just acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., due to the foresight of Arthur J. Wheelock, Jr., the gallery’s canny curator of Dutch pictures.
A charming harbor city on the Ijsselmeer (formerly the Zuiderzee) in North Holland that is seldom visited by most tourists, Hoorn in the 17th century was of capital importance to the Dutch, both as a home base of the Dutch East India Company and as a center of international trade, particularly for exotic and extremely expensive oriental spices like pepper, mace, nutmeg and cloves. While most marine painters of the time would have depicted a high panorama of the proud bustling city welcoming a treasure-laden fleet, de Werver paints Hoorn from miles away as a thin, finely rendered sliver of land bisecting a slightly overcast afternoon sky and calmly rippling silvery water. On the left, workers on a ship at half-mast transfer its cargo into a smaller boat alongside, while at right, a small schooner gently sails towards the city.
Placid and soothing, de Werver’s painting is also compositionally innovative, at variance with Dutch harbor scenes by his famous contemporaries Jacob van Ruysdael, Simon de Vlieger, Jan van de Cappelle and Willem van de Velde the Younger.
The picture was acquired privately from a Dutch family by the London dealer Johnny van Haeften, and brought by him to the Maastricht Art Fair in March. As one of several curators on the fairs vetting committee, Wheelock could claim first dibs on any picture before the public was admitted. He found the de Verwer in one of van Haeftens smaller Wunderkammer rooms, where it hung low, close to the floor and easily overlookable on a wall tiered with pictures.
Laughs Wheelock, "I think Johnny was a bit taken aback I would want a painting by a minor master for the National Gallery, and after I reserved it, he looked like he wondered ‘Did I sell this too cheaply?’" Van Haeften himself smiles at this, saying that "de Verwer is not an artist than most people are looking for, but he’s not commonly found. It was certainly a fair price." Wheelock will not disclose what the National Gallery paid and will only say that "it’s a record for a de Verwer, but it’s a small fraction of what a multimillion-dollar seascape by his more famous contemporaries would cost."
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.