Aelbert Jacobsz Cuyp was one of the predominant Dutch landscape painters of the 17th century. The oldest Dutch town is Dordrecht and this is where Aelbert Cuyp came from. He remained in Dordrecht all his life anddied at Dordrecht, but he seems to have travelled along Holland’s great rivers to the eastern part of the Netherlands, and he also painted views of Westphalia.
A prodigious number of pictures are ascribed to him, but his oeuvre poses many problems. He often signed his paintings but rarely dated them, and a satisfactory chronology has never been established. Although he had little influence outside Dordrecht, Cuyp had several imitators there, and some of the paintings formerly attributed to him are now given to Abraham Calraet (1642-1722), who signed himself `AC’ (the same initials as Cuyp).
In the 17-century, Dutch artists re-defined painting. The themes changed from almost exclusively religious to genre and still life, and the Dutch specialty, landscape. The Dutch painted all this in a way that related to the local life, and they invented their own iconography. The patronage of painters and ownership of paintings changed as well. Before, paintings belonged mostly to Catholic churches, to monarchs’ or courtiers’ palaces and to Church dignitaries; in the Protestant Republic they appeared in burghers’ homes. The fascinating subject in the history of painting are cultural cross-influences across Europe.
Dutch art was influenced by the Italians: the Utrecht Caravaggisti played a significant role in disseminating the style of Caravaggio beyond Italy. Later, the Netherlandish art exerted a major influence on the British painting. Aelbert Cuyp’s work is important for both of these transfers of style.Socially, the Dutch Republic was reminiscent of the Italian city states of the Renaissance in that, on the one hand, her merchants and sailors explored the world and established trade outposts, and on the other, the local life was charmingly parochial. Towns and cities, although geographically close, kept their distinct identities, and this was particularly evident in art.
Out-of-place as it may appear, it was not unusual for 17th-century Dutch painters to travel to Italy for inspiration. Andries and Jan Both did it, as did Nicolaes Berchem, Bartholomeus Breenbergh and Jan Asselijn. Aelbert Cuyp – to whose work the National Gallery has devoted the eponymous exhibition opening on February 13 – did not, a fact which makes his marked Italianate style all the more intriguing. Not only did Cuyp not travel to Italy, but he is one of the few Dutch painters of the time who spent his entire career in the place where he was born.
Cuyp was born in a family of painters and, although not much is known of his early days, he most probably trained with his father, with whom he jointly painted some of his first works, including Portrait Of A Family In A Landscape. Unprepossessing cows and ethereal trees painted by Aelbert in muted beige, light brown and green provided the backdrop for his father’s vigorous portraiture.The Cuyps had family connections in Utrecht, where young Aelbert is thought to have met Jan Both. Whether Cuyp trained under Both or was just influenced by his work, his style changed dramatically in the 1640s, acquiring the Italianate flavour which is typical of his mature paintings.
Cuyp created his own brand of painting by combining Dutch scenery with Mediterranean colours and light effects. Golden hues replaced the pale tonalities of his early works while his subjects – especially animals – became bolder and more substantial. His new style clearly emerges in Cows in a River, where warm sunrays are masterly reflected on the animals and in the water. He is especially known for late afternoon and early morning landscapes of the Dutch countryside. The sunlight in his paintings rake across the panel accenting small bits of detail in the golden light. In large panoramic views of the Dutch countryside, highlights of a small blade of meadow grass, the mane of a tranquil horse, the horn of a dairy cow reclining by a stream, or the tip of a peasant’s hat are all caught in a frozen atmospheric bath of yellow ocher light. The paint quality of a Cuyp painting is unmistakably masterful. The rich varnished medium refracts the light rays like a jewel as it dissolves into the numerous glazed layers.
Cuyp’s drawings reveal him to be a draftsman of superior quality. Light drenched washes of golden brown ink depict a distance view of the city of Dordrecht or Utrecht. A Cuyp drawing may look like he intended it to be a finished work of art but it was most likely taken back to the studio and used as a reference for his paintings. Often the same section of a sketch can be found in several different paintings. Cuyp’s landscapes were based half on reality and half on his own invention of what an enchanting landscape should be.
His earliest landscapes (from 1639) were influenced by Jan van Goyen, but he later discovered the Italianate views of the Utrecht painters Jan Both, and Saftleven. Though he traveled up the Rhine in 1651 or 1652, he seems rarely to have left Dordrecht and his work remained little known outside the town until the eighteenth century. Following the deaths of his father and uncle, his work assumed a somewhat grander character, to include equestrian portraits and extensive views.
Throughout his work, Cuyp certainly celebrated the robust wealth of the new trading classes, which he himself joined after he married an affluent widow in 1658. He pandered to their aspirations by representing his sitters engaged in noble pursuits (first and foremost of which was hunting) in elegant country settings. His Arcadia of classical statues, hounds, horses and lush countryside reflected Holland’s prosperity just as much as the lobsters, lemons and assorted exotic food which populated Heda’s still-lifes.
The portraits and historic paintings of Cuyp are rather dull, his portraiture suffers from the comparison with Rembrandt or Vermeer. The rather formulaic Portrait of a A Man With Rifle, for example, cannot compete with the intensity of, say, Hendrickje Bathing in a River or Girl With A Pearl Earring.
Cuyp, by contrast, excels at landscapes and, although his fame as a ‘bovine painter’ may sound belittling, cows and vistas are really what he does best. His pastoral scenes may not elicit the passion of Rubens’ The Village Fˆte – at the private view, I overheard someone saying that Cuyp was boring – but they are restful, peaceful, pleasing to the eye. Unavoidably for a Dutch painter, the ships dominate the scene in several views of Dordrecht and River Maas. Ruisdael, Van de Velde and others ingrained the ships in Dutch painting but here the ‘standard’ images acquire new character when painted using Cuyp’s late, lighter palette. The Maas at Dordrecht with its lightness and luminosity is one of the best marine pictures in Dutch painting, with sunlight playing on the river through the sails, it conveys a sense of serenity, although it depicts the massing of the Dutch fleet at Dordrecht in 1646 during the war against Spain. Most of Cuyp’s work was painted after the 1648 treaty and celebrated the newly acquired independence of the Dutch republic, but relatively few battle scenes were painted even during the war. It wasn’t something patrons would want to look at while dining.’
Cuyp’s mastery in the use of light comes across most forcefully in the last room of the exhibition, where, dulcis in fundo, Cuyp’s best work is gathered together in a triumph of cows, leaves, rivers and unfurling sails. My favourite canvas – somewhat overshadowed by the larger and better-known River Landscape with Horsemen and Peasants – is the Dordrecht From The North, on loan from the Anthony de Rotschild Collection. The tranquil water of the harbour at sunset is the quintessential incarnation of both Cuyp’s pictorial language and of the idyllic lifestyle of 17th century Holland.
In 1658 Cuyp married a rich widow, and in the 1660s he seems to have virtually abandoned painting. He was almost forgotten for two generations after his death. Late 18th-century English collectors are credited with rediscovering his merits, and he is still much better represented in English collections, public and private, than in Dutch museums. He was buried on 15 November 1691 in the Augustijner church in Dordrecht.
Source: Wikipedia, onder de GNU Free Documentation License, Aelbert Cuyp [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons