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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


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A new biography of Velden, Petrus van der appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Petrus Van der Velden was born of humble parents on 5 May 1837 in Rotterdam, Holland. He served his apprenticeship in the printing and lithographic trade, and in 1864 became a partner in the printing firm of Zijderman and Van der Velden, of Rotterdam. His main interest, however, lay in painting and in 1868 he was registered at the Academy of Art, Rotterdam. In 1869 he attended the Academy in Berlin and the following year visited the Normandy coast and worked for a time in Dordrecht. From 1870 to 1873 he devoted most of his time to painting, mainly on the island of Marken, with some success, for in 1872 his picture “Double Blank” was purchased by the National Museum in Amsterdam. The years 1873–75 were spent in Rotterdam, and during this period he exhibited frequently, to such effect that in 1875 came an invitation from Joseph Israels to join his group in the Hague. It appears that Van der Velden spent intermittent periods at the Hague until 1883, by which time he had gained a considerable reputation as an established painter.

In 1890 he sailed for New Zealand with his wife and two sons and one daughter in response to an invitation from his friend, Gerrit Van Asch, who was settled in Sumner, Christchurch. Van der Velden decided to remain in the Christchurch district and stayed first at Avonside but later moved to a house on the corner of Conference and Durham Streets where he took pupils. About 1892 he made a six-month painting trip to the Otira Gorge, providing himself with subject-matter for the best of his New Zealand paintings. In 1894 he started a life drawing class. Among his talented pupils were Robert Proctor, Elizabeth and Cecil Kelly, Leonard Booth, Charles Bickerton, and Sydney Thompson. During this first Christchurch period the artist was never far removed from poverty and felt keenly his lack of recognition.

In 1898 he sailed for Sydney, Australia, and enjoyed an initial financial success, selling his picture “Disillusioned” to the Sydney Art Gallery, but in 1900 he was in poor health. Little is known of his movements from 1901 to 1905 except that he married again, his first wife having died in 1899. It appears he did not exhibit work in Sydney later than 1901. In 1905 he returned to Wellington weakened in health. There are few pictures of this last period. In 1913 he was in Auckland where he intended to settle, but on 10 November 1913 he died there of a heart attack.

Van der Velden's genre painting of his Dutch period carries the imprint of sentimental realism, a movement headed in Holland by Israels. Arriving in New Zealand with a large number of paintings, Van der Velden continued to paint Dutch subjects in New Zealand in reminiscence, as well as versions of his existing paintings, thus accounting for the preponderance of his Dutch period works in New Zealand. His New Zealand work, nevertheless, shows a further development of his style, and his Otira paintings particularly, with their dramatic chiaroscuro, are more broadly painted and based on his axiom, “colour is light”. His masterpiece is undoubtedly “Otira Gorge”, in the Dunedin Art Gallery. In Australia and New Zealand, with the exception of occasional portraits, he painted mostly landscapes. His method of working was to follow a careful approach from drawings and watercolours to a small oil sketch before a large work was commenced. In landscape, much of his preparation work was done out of doors. His too frequent use of bitumen has caused serious deterioration in some of his oils. Through his work and his pupils, his influence on New Zealand painting was widespread, and persisted longest in Canterbury. A dedicated and prolific artist, he exhibited frequently while in New Zealand in local exhibitions. Examples of his art are in most of the public galleries of New Zealand and in the possession of several galleries in Holland.

by Thomas Esplin, D.A.(EDIN.), Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Home Science, University of Otago.

  • Petrus Van der Velden, Catalogue of his Painting, 1870–1912, Auckland City Art Gallery (1959–60)
  • Art in New Zealand, Vol. 3 (1930–31).


Thomas Esplin, D.A.(EDIN.), Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Home Science, University of Otago.