This article first appeared as 'Lost painting found' in The Press on 2 November 2012.
When Dr Rodney Wilson, director of our predecessor gallery, the Robert McDougall Art Gallery from 1979-1981 and an acknowledged Petrus van der Velden expert, published a catalogue raisonnée (a catalogue of the artist's entire work) in 1979, the whereabouts of The Leuvehaven, Rotterdam was unknown, although studies and lithographs, some distinct sections of the finished painting, were annotated. Some thirty years later he became aware of the work and let us know.
I saw it in Ede, The Netherlands, a side-step on my way to Venice in November 2009, and I was so impressed I asked the dealer to hold Leuvehaven for Christchurch until we could secure the funds – council's then new challenge grant to our trust provided a good vehicle for this.
This painting is remarkable both because it is the only known major marine subject surviving from van der Velden's earliest years as a marine painter and also because 1867 marks the year he determined to become a painter instead of the lithographer. In it we see van der Velden's highly-developed skill in capturing the details of a busy harbour scene; the rigging, sails and masts of various ships anchored at port are detailed and delicately painted.
The Leuvehaven, Rotterdam is the first important painting from this time purchased for a New Zealand public collection. It allows us to show where van der Velden came from and how he worked prior to the Dutch funeral series, of which Christchurch's Dutch Funeral is exemplary. It places in stark relief the remarkable romantic shift in his work when he became enthralled by New Zealand's landscape, particularly the Otira region, following his move here in 1891.
When Christchurch Art Gallery opened its new collections exhibition 'Brought to Light' in 2009, it was devised to be flexible so that new additions such as this could be inserted into the conversations about art which it set up. One of my favourite places to stand after we hung Leuvehaven, in 2010 was a spot where you could see the new painting, Mountain Stream, Otira Gorge and The Dutch Funeral in a single glance. The latter two works are great favourites with our public, and in time this painting will become one also.
This 'On View' finishes with a sobering point for us now. For it's worth noting that, apart from the square tower of St Laurens Kerk in the mid-distance, the entire area depicted in this work was levelled to the ground during the Second World War. Some sixty years later, it is re-built and a bustling Dutch port.