Page 1: Biography
Velden, Petrus van der
Artist, art teacher
This biography, written by T. L. Rodney Wilson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Petrus van der Velden was born at Rotterdam, the Netherlands, on 5 May 1837, the fifth child of a working-class Catholic family. His parents were Joannes van der Velden, a warehouse manager, and his wife, Jacoba van Essel. Petrus began drawing lessons at about the age of 13 at the Schilderkundig genootschap, and a year later commenced an apprenticeship in the lithographic trade. In 1858, in partnership with J. G. Zijderman, he established a lithographic printing firm in Rotterdam.
Van der Velden's earliest known, datable work was painted in 1864 or 1865, but it was not until 1867 that he wound up the printing firm and began painting full time. It was also in this year that he first exhibited, showing a harbour scene with the Arti et Amicitiae society in Amsterdam. His first subjects were maritime. In 1868 he published a lithograph, 'River scene', in the Dutch art periodical Kunstkronijk, and the same year registered at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts. In 1869 van der Velden was registered at an academy in Berlin, having received a scholarship from King William III, and the following year was active in Honfleur and Normandy in France.
With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, van der Velden returned to Dordrecht in the Netherlands, and commenced what was to become an important series of paintings on the lives of the fishing people of Marken. In manner and subject these works were in the style of European realism, depicting the ordinary lives of the Marken people and particularly the harshness and drama of their relationship with the sea.
On 28 December 1874 van der Velden was accepted as an ordinary member of the Pulchri Studio in The Hague, and moved to that city early the following year. On 3 August 1876, at Rotterdam, he married Sophia Wilhelmina Eckhart, also of Rotterdam and sister of the sculptor David Eckhart. After their marriage they moved to Wassenaar, near The Hague. They were to have three children: Wilhelm, Gerard and Hendrika Alice.
After his arrival in The Hague, van der Velden exhibited there and in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, London, Manchester and Scotland. From 1876 to 1878 he was superintendent of the drawing room at the Pulchri Studio, and in 1887 was superintendent of art appreciation. For two years between 1877 and 1882 he taught the Dutch impressionist Suze Bisschop (then Suze Robertson). He mixed with the most prominent artists of the Netherlands, coming to the attention of the young Vincent van Gogh in 1882 and 1883. During the 1880s he increasingly turned his attention to landscape painting. While his early work had been formed under the influence of Jozef Israels, this later painting was reminiscent of Hendrik Mesdag.
It is not certain what motivated van der Velden and his family to emigrate to New Zealand. However, dissatisfaction at the outcome of an art competition, which developed into a squabble with Mesdag, combined with an invitation from Gerrit van Asch, the pioneer teacher of the deaf at Sumner in Christchurch, appear to have been the principal causes. In April 1890 the family left the Netherlands and in London boarded the Orizaba for Melbourne, Australia. They arrived at Lyttelton, New Zealand, on the Waihora on 21 June. At first they lived with van Asch at Sumner, then at the end of the year made their home in Avonside.
Van der Velden brought to Christchurch the attitudes and concerns of one of Europe's most highly regarded artistic centres, and introduced the role of the professional artist. By the end of 1890 he had committed himself to the artistic life of the city. In November at the Canterbury Society of Arts' exhibition he exhibited the now legendary 'Dutch funeral', which is the largest, and perhaps the greatest, of his Marken studies.
In January 1891 van der Velden made his first trip to Otira Gorge, and discovered the new landscape motif which was to occupy his energies throughout the remainder of his life. Within a very short time he developed a major reputation in Christchurch, exhibiting regularly with the art societies there and in Dunedin. In 1893 he had a large studio built at the family's new home in Durham Street, and in February 1894 began taking private pupils. Robert Proctor, Elizabeth and Cecil Kelly, Leonard Booth, Charles Bickerton, Raymond McIntyre and Sydney Thompson all studied with him.
Although van der Velden was highly regarded in Christchurch, the material reward for his work fell short of expectation. Financial disputes began to occur. Finally, the prospect of greener fields in Australia proved irresistible and the family sailed for Sydney at the end of April 1898. At first things went well in Sydney, and the Christchurch painting 'Disillusioned', also known as 'The sorrowful future', was sold to the National Art Gallery of New South Wales for £400. Although little is known of the artist's life there, Sydney, it seems, was little better to the artist than Christchurch, and he remained there for only 5½ years. On 1 May 1899 Sophia van der Velden died. From January to March 1901 Petrus was ill and residing at the Carrington Hospital for Convalescents at Camden outside Sydney. He continued to exhibit regularly, however, and in 1903 was working at Bondi.
In January 1904, accompanied by Australia Wahlberg, he returned to New Zealand. On 4 February 1904, two weeks after their arrival in Wellington on the Victoria, the couple were married at the Wellington Registry Office. On Christmas Day the following year Australia van der Velden gave birth to a son, Noel, who died aged only 26 days on 19 January 1906.
Van der Velden exhibited at Christchurch and Wellington in 1904. He painted a portrait of Richard Seddon following the premier's death in 1906, but this was lost in the fire at Parliament Buildings in 1907. During the Wellington years he became progressively more reclusive, moving residence several times, but still continued to exhibit regularly. In March 1909 a self-portrait shown by the Canterbury Society of Arts in Christchurch was purchased by Nellie Melba, of whom the artist was greatly enamoured. When a second child, a daughter, was born in May that year she was named Melba after the diva.
During his final years van der Velden often repeated the Marken and Otira subjects, recognising them, it seems, as his greatest achievements. He was exhibited frequently, but often the selection of his works was retrospective. During a visit to Auckland in 1913 he contracted bronchitis and died (from heart failure) on 11 November. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Waikaraka cemetery three days later. Australia and Melba van der Velden returned to Sydney the following year.