Dutch painter and printmaker, active mainly in France. He was born at Zoeterwoude, near Leiden. In 1907, at the age of twelve, he was apprenticed to an interior decorator, who was so impressed with his talent that in 1922 he sent him to Worpswede to complete his artistic education. He moved to Paris in 1925, and apart from the years 1932–6, which he spent in Majorca, he lived there until 1965. During the Second World War he was reduced to abject poverty and virtually stopped painting between 1940 and 1945. He had his first solo exhibition in 1946 (at the Galerie Mai, Paris), but he did not achieve substantial recognition until 1958, when there was a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Kunsthalle, Berne. In 1965 he moved to Switzerland and settled in Geneva.
At Worpswede van Velde was deeply influenced by German Expressionism and his work remained Expressionist in spirit throughout his career. On his arrival in Paris he adopted a Fauvist palette, painting landscapes and flower pieces in vivid colours, and he later incorporated formal simplifications derived from Cubism. But even before 1930 the subject of his paintings would often recede and virtually disappear behind flecks and lines of colour, and these early works have therefore been regarded as anticipating the abstract manner he adopted in the late 1930s. By 1945 he had developed his mature style, characterized by vaguely defined fluid shapes that trigger off associations of figures, faces, masks, and objects but obstinately refuse identification. His paintings have been said to embody the spirit of existentialism, and the writer Samuel Beckett—an early champion—characterized his work as ‘primarily a painting of the thing in a state of suspense…the thing alone…the thing immobile in the void.’ Van Velde's paintings give the feeling of dynamic spontaneity, but in fact he worked slowly and deliberately, often taking months to complete a picture. Consequently his œuvre is fairly small—about 200 paintings. A good collection of them is in the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire in Geneva.
His brother Geervan Velde (1898–1977) was also a painter and likewise active mainly in France. He was self-taught as an artist. In 1925 he moved to Paris and lived in or near the city for the rest of his life, apart from the war years, which he spent at Cagnes. His most characteristic works are abstracts painted in light, translucent colours, often delicate shades of blue. His compositions are more geometrical than those of his brother; behind the lines and abstract shapes there appear to lie vague suggestions of still-lifes or interiors.