Potter’s and Cuyp’s paintings of cows and oxen of the 1640s and 1650s mark the apotheosis of the genre. Artists such as Van Laer and Asselijn for the first time painted the animals realistically. Cuyp adopted this striking realism while at the same time very subtly idealizing them. He probably was the first who represented cows with a sense of dignity and grandeur while older artists, such as Roelant Savery or even his contemporary Cornelis Saftleven (1607-1681) depicted the animals as caricaturally clumsy and dim-witted. Cuyp, on the contrary, shows cows as individuals and, in this scene, as caring; one of them is tenderly licking another.
7 - Simon de Vlieger, Estuary at Day's End, c. 1643. Washington, National Gallery of Art
A herd of cows sojourns in a verdant meadow surrounded by shallow hills. An uninterrupted view is offered to a distant horizon punctuated by the tower of Dordrecht’s Grote Kerk. A golden afternoon light comes from the left. The cows are sharply set off against magnificent grey cloud formations. Cuyp concentrated on the animals, omitting the herdsman and his dogs. A carefree mood pervades the scene. Cuyp painted a group of cow paintings in the late 1640s and early 1650s in which he achieves an overwhelming effect of space and monumentality. Having first produced tonal landscapes that echo Van Goyen, Cuyp next followed the lead of Simon de Vlieger (1600-1653) and the foremost Italianate ar tists, such as Asselijn (1600-10-1652) and Claes Berchem (1621/22-1683). The imposing cloudscape here is re miniscent of De V lieger’s works from the 1640s (fig. 7), whi le the use of figures in the foreground in combination with a distant panoramic view were inspired by recent works by Asselijn cum suis (fig. 8).
The Cuyp scholar Alan Chong writes in the Christie’s catalogue entry about our painting: “The signature is of the type Aelbert Cuyp employed from 1653 to about 1655, and the treatment of the sky is a product of the artist’s maturity. Whereas earlier skies consist of swirling masses of dark grey, vigorously applied, the greys in this sk y are significantly lighter in tone and more relaxed in impasto. Importantly, the edges of the clouds facing the sun are painted with broken streaks of white, tinged subtly with pink and orange – a characteristic of Cuyp’s later work”.
All of Cuyp’s other comparable cow paintings are earlier. One of his best works, his somewhat larger panel of a River Landscape with Cows in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, is datable to 1648-50 (fig. 9). The gathered cows are silhouetted against the overcast sky executed with deft brushstrokes in an array of greys, whites and yellows. Another masterpiece of around c. 1650 in which the human presence, just as in our work, has been pushed back to the distance is Cuyp’s crisply painted panel in Budapest (fig. 10). The clouds are again vigorously painted and the scene bathes in a silvery light.
8 - Jan Asselijn, Panoramic View, c. 1650-52. Vienna, Akademie der Bildenden Künste
9 - Aelbert Cuyp, River Landscape with Cows, c. 1650. Washington, National Gallery of Art
10 - Aelbert Cuyp, Cows Standing in a River, c. 1650. Budapest Szépmüvészeti Múzeum
The concept of a close-knit herd of cows in the foreground of an empty and flat landscape, which gives prominence to the sky, evidently appealed to Cuyp. Not all the paintings he created along these lines are as successful as our painting or the two other just-mentioned works, however. In yet another work in Washington (fig. 11) the cows don’t interact with each other, while in our cow scene they do, and, in a very engaging way at that. The cows in the National Gallery painting are decidedly too small compared to the human figures, especially the herdsman sitting close to the animals at the extreme right, who, if he would get up would be a giant (fig. 12).
11 - Aelbert Cuyp, Landscape withg Hersmen, c.1650-52. Washington, National Gallery of Art
12 - Aelbert Cuyp, A Herdsmen with Five Cows by a River, c. 1650. London, National Gallery
Going over all these cow scenes and comparing them with our painting, it seems as if Cuyp had learned from the mistakes he made in some of them. Cuyp’s Landscape with Cattle Grazing on a Bank stands at the very end of the development. It is here that Cuyp reached his apogee of sophistication. The lonely sprig of grass in the right foreground that catches is such a brilliant detail that testifies to Cuyp’s genius. The sunlight is furthermore cleverly used to define the spatial layout, a quality singled out for praise by the great Romantic artist John Constable in an often-quoted passage: “Chiaroscuro is by no means confined to dark pictures; the works of Cuyp, though generally light, are full of it. It may be defined as that power which creates space”. Our painting is an excellently preserved specimen of Cuyp’s most archetypical subject matter. With its lyrical mood and sensitive portrayal of light it shows Cuyp at his very best.
Today Cuyp enjoys a proverbial reputation worldwide. He already had considerable success during in his lifetime but as he was exclusively active in his native Dordrecht and worked for local patrons his fame only spread later. The heyday of Cuyp’s acclaim certainly was in nineteenth-century Britain. Cuyp’s sundrenched landscapes enlivened with horses, hunting parties and husbandry appealed to the noble collectors because they impart a distinct aristocratic flavour.
The British taste for Cuyp was nurtured from the 1760s onwards. In 1769 the publisher and printmaker John Boydell (1720-1804) made an etching after Cuyp’s enormous sunlit landscape then in the Bute Collection and nowadays in the National Gallery in London. In this publication which also included etchings after other old master paintings the authors singles out for praise the “bright misty rays of the sun, which exactly the character of nature” and Cuyp is compared to great masters such as Claude Lorrain (1604-5-1682). In the same source the British claim to be the discoverers of the master:
“It is astonishing, that the works of so great a master as Cuyp should have been almost totally unknown, or disregarded, till within the last twenty years. That his merit should have been overlooked by his countrymen is not at all surprizing. The boldness of his pencil, and the freedom of his touches were not calculated to please a people who have been accustomed to the exquisite finishings of the most laborious class of artists that the world has produced the attention of collectors of other nations […] appears incredible […] It is entirely owing to the taste of the British nation, that his pictures have been retrieved from obscurity, their value enhanced, and places allotted them in some of the first Collections in this kingdom.”
Cuyp’s breakthrough came still later, during the English Regency era (1795-1837). For instance, it was then that the art dealer Noel Desenfans (1745-1807), whose collection would later form the nucleus of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, acquired his ten paintings by the Dordrecht master. To be sure, not only dealers and collectors became infatuated with Cuyp, artists as well. One of his staunchest admirers probably was the landscape painter Richard Wilson (1713-1782) and in many his works Cuyp’s influence is paramount. A host of other British painters were susceptible to the qualities of Cuyp’s art, among them the leading landscape artists of the moment such as Thomas Gainsbourough (1727-1788) and John Constable (1776-1837). William Turner (1775-1851) even paid a tribute to Cuyp in a painting that he titled “The Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed”, or “Dort”, now in the Yale Center for British Art. The craze for Cuyp in Britain was never equalled in any other country and even now, more works by him reside here than in anywhere else. The British taste for Cuyp in turn generated an interest across the ocean, in the United States. By then, around 1800, no important paintings by Cuyp were left in The Netherlands, a loss that can never be made up for.