Jan Porcellis was a Dutch painter, draughtsman and etcher of Flemish origin. His father, Captain Jan Pourchelles or Porcellis, was one of the many Flemish refugees from the renewed Spanish persecutions in 1585 who emigrated to the northern Netherlands. The family settled at Rotterdam, where Jan Porcellis is first recorded on the occasion of his marriage in 1605. He probably started his career as a graphic artist, not a painter, possibly working for the Rotterdam engraver and publisher Jan van Doetechum (d 1630), who published maps, book illustrations and engravings of ship portraits. Through his wife, van Doetechum was related to the English publisher of emblem books Geoffrey Whitney (1548–?1601), which may account for Porcellis’s stay in London, where one of his daughters was born before 1615. Houbraken’s suggestion that he was a pupil of Hendrick Vroom must be discounted. Research has established that two Vroom-like marine paintings (a battle scene and a Storm at Night), in the British Royal Collection since c. 1610 and formerly regarded as the earliest known paintings by Porcellis, are by Vroom. The earliest known secure paintings by Porcellis belong to the 1620s.
Porcellis is first mentioned as a painter in Antwerp, where he moved in 1615 following his bankruptcy in Rotterdam. He became a master of the Antwerp Guild of St Luke in 1617. Continued financial difficulties forced him to sign a contract for the delivery within 20 weeks of 40 marine paintings (untraced) to an Antwerp cooper. His fortunes changed after he settled in Haarlem in 1622. There he developed an original manner of Marine painting, pioneering the ‘tonal’ style that his contemporaries Pieter de Molijn, Salomon van Ruysdael and Jan van Goyen were exploring in landscape painting. The vivid local colours of Vroom and his followers gave way to a virtually monochrome palette of light grey and brown, enlivened with brilliant white highlights to mark the crests of the waves or to suggest sunlight filtering through hazy clouds. Porcellis moved the ships into the middle distance and veiled the scene in a translucent atmosphere, suggesting the moisture-laden skies of northern shores. Fleeting clouds over a very low horizon cast their shadows on the water, where they alternate with bright streaks of sunlight. This animated interplay of light and shade and the integration of the sky into the composition were innovations that changed the course of Dutch marine and landscape painting.
Early work as an illustrator, possibly of emblem books, may account for Porcellis’s choice of subject-matter. Excepting an uncharacteristically large-scale View of ?Santander Bay (before 1622; British Royal Collection), his paintings avoid any of the topographical references or detailed portraits of ships that had dominated the first phase of Dutch marine painting associated with Vroom. Although clouds, waves, wind and weather conditions are carefully observed from nature, the paintings offer a generalized vision of marine scenery and shipping, evocative of allegorical and emblematic interpretations, in which ships symbolize man’s voyage through life. The tiny Stormy Sea (1629; Alte Pinacothek, Munich), with its trompe l’oeil frame and ambiguous space, clearly carries a symbolic, allegorical message. Porcellis also produced 15 drawings and a series of 20 etchings, featuring fishermen on the shore, published as Verscheyden stranden en water gesichten in Haarlem during the 1620s. The figures are derived from Hendrick Goltzius’s drawings of Apostles, but some of the scenes are direct references to contemporary emblems based on fishermen’s activities. However, a later series of 12 etchings after Porcellis’s designs, published by Claes Jansz. Visscher I as Icones variarum navium Hollandicarum (Amsterdam, 1627), exceptionally illustrates various types of small Dutch working vessels, realistically observed in changing conditions of wind and weather.
Porcellis’s continued commitment to graphic media may have influenced his choice of a monochrome palette for paintings. He was probably also familiar with the grisaille technique frequently used for the painting of emblems. The round format and small scale of a number of his paintings were popular with painters of allegorical and emblematic subjects, such as Adriaen van de Venne and Esaias van de Velde, and recall the example of Jan Breughel I, whose work Porcellis must have known in Flanders. The atmospheric treatment in his paintings points to Breughel’s influence, while the dramatic rendering of storm-tossed waves under heavy clouds recalls the manner of Andries van Eertvelt, the leading Flemish marine painter of the early 17th century. Porcellis synthesized these impressions with the achievements of the Dutch marine painters in Haarlem. His stylistic innovations were hailed by contemporary Dutch connoisseurs as an achievement that, according to a remark in Constantijn Huygens’s autobiography, left Vroom and other marine artists far behind. Samuel Ampzing, in his Beschrijvinge ende lof der stad Haerlem … (Haarlem, 1628, p. 372), hailed Porcellis as ‘de grootste konstenaer in schepen’ (‘the greatest ship artist’).
Porcellis’s oeuvre is small: only c. 50 paintings have been identified, with varying degrees of certainty. Dated pictures, ranging from 1620 to 1631, are extremely rare. Porcellis left Haarlem for Amsterdam in 1624 and in 1626 lived in Voorburg near The Hague. His last few years, from c. 1628, were spent in Zouterwoude near Leiden, where he owned extensive properties.
Apart from pioneering ‘tonal’ painting in Haarlem in the 1630s, he inspired the leading Dutch marine painters of the mid-17th century, especially Simon de Vlieger, Jan van de Cappelle and their followers. Rembrandt as well as van de Cappelle collected paintings and drawings by Porcellis. A group of close followers continued to work in his manner, most notably his son Julius Porcellis (b Rotterdam, before 1610; d Leiden, 1645) and his pupil and brother-in-law, Hendrick van Anthonissen (c. 1606–between 1654 and 1660). Julius Porcellis’s paintings, like many of his father’s, are signed with the initials jp or ip, but none is dated—causing confusion regarding attributions, which have to be made on stylistic grounds. Though compositionally similar, Julius’s paintings are weaker in execution; they lack the spatial depth and brilliant light effects of Jan’s manner, and later works are painted in much brighter colours, as favoured by Dutch marine painters at the close of the ‘tonal’ phase, from c. 1640.
Porcellis’s work is represented in the following collections: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery, The Hague; British Royal Collection, London; Alte Pinacothek, Munich; Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford; Courtauld Institute of Art, London; Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, France; National Maritime Museum, Greenwich; Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, British Columbia; Museum Bredius, Netherlands; Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal; amongst others.