It is hardly surprising that Cuyp’s paintings were so popular in 18th-century Britain. He appealed to the uniquely British dream of living in the northern countryside under a Mediterranean sun. Even John Ruskin, who ferociously criticised Cuyp in Modern Painters, admitted that ‘for expression of effects ofyellow sunlight, parts might be chosen out of the good pictures of Cuyp, which have never been equalled in art.’ It is fascinating how northern European painters were enthralled by the golden glow of the Italian campagna at a time when Italy was moving away from the Renaissance to embrace Tenebrism and the dark palette of the Baroque. Take, for example, Cuyp’s Dordrecht Harbour by Moonlight, which is infused with tranquillity despite its night-time setting, and compare it with any painting by De Ribera, Caravaggio or Carracci. The roots of this divergence partly lie in the Counter-Reformation and how it affected Catholic countries. The Catholic Church’s reaction to Protestantism generated a sacrificial vision of life as an apotheosis of pain, sufferance and death, which never made inroads in northern continental Europe. But the stark contrast between northern and southern European art also reflects a shift in the balance of power. Italy and Spain were losing their trade and their political prominence to Holland and Britain. While the South’s dwindling fortunes were mirrored in the doom and gloom of Baroque, Dutch painters portrayed the perfect harmony between man and nature towards which the North strived.
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