Beneath the surface as well

''Van de Velde,'' wrote Hofstede de Groot, ''would certainly have tried to leave out the sea, if he could have done so.'' There is an element of mischief, as well as truth, in such a remark. Van de Velde the Younger is, after all, one of the world's outstanding marine painters, one of the giants to emerge in a country and century in which sea painting developed into a separate and significant branch of art. He was Dutch, and lived from 1633 to 1707. He was prolific, versatile and accomplished.

De Groot's point was that van de Velde was a painter of ships rather than the sea as such, and that he only painted the second as the unavoidable context of the first. It is a matter of priorities. It is true that he could give the minutest attention to every fine detail of a ship even though it was ploughing gallantly through the most tremendous storm: circumstances where another artist might well be forgiven for letting his imagination loose on the swell and heave while seeing the ship itself reduced to little more than a shape or a blur. Van de Velde seems to treat wind and wave with a kind of summary generalization, but is scrupulously accurate when it comes to the depiction of carving on a prow, or mizzen skysail, or flying jib.

He and his father (who principally drewm ships) are even recorded as using ''a Model of the Mast and Tackle of a Ship'' for their ''better information.'' Patrons must have appreciated their work for just this precision. When they settled in England in the early 1670s, they were employed by Charles II to make pictures of ''seafights.'' The accurate portrayal of particular vessels would certainly have been expected.

But recorded battles and storms at sea were not - as this tranquil painting from the Wallace Collection shows - van de Velde's only subjects. The calm sea piece was also a type of picture at which he excelled and to which he brought his own undemonstrative perception of atmosphere and light, lucid space and telling interval. The various vessels in ''Ships in a Calm'' are placed in compositional and tonal relationships that seem at the same time fortuitous and inevitable. Their positions are chosen by the artist for the sake of balance and in order to emphasize the wideness and placidity of the becalmed element. A considerable amount of human activity in the fishing and rowing boats and the three-masted ship in the distance in no way disturbs this serenity. The repeated verticals of masts, the loose-hanging sails, the unmoving reflections and the line of the horizon merging imperceptibly with the large, quiet sky, are all made to contribute to the painting's universal consistency. It would not only be mischievous but also untrue to suggest that in this picture van de Velde was a painter of ships rather than the sea. It could even be argued that his main interest here was in the transparency and limpidity of ocean and sky, and that the ships and boats - in their enforced idleness - are incidentals to this overall effect.

It would, on the other hand, be misleading to assume that the painter was making such a picture purely from observation and firsthand knowledge of the sea's stillness. This side of his art clearly derives much from that of his teacher, Simon de Vlieger. To this artist he owes his awareness of the pictorial impact of a vast sky over a low horizon; of the way to treat spatial breadth and watery expanse; of how ships can be placed near and far to increase the depth and airiness of a seascape.

''Ships in a Calm'' can also be read as a symbol. As a painter of both gales and calms, van de Velde can hardly have failed to notice the analogy between states of ocean and states of mind. The sea, as his own art shows, was often, in the seventeenth century, an arena for war, the scene of national defeats and triumphs, conquest and disgrace. Thus a picture like this one is not only an image of windless inactivity at sea, it is also emblematic of a state of peacem.

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