Aelbert Cuyp’s numerous views of river life are extremely varied and demonstrate a remarkable sensitivity to the changing light and water conditions encountered on inland waterways. He could comfortably set boats in the water, even as he visually contrasted water’s translucent and changing surface with the physical presence of heavy wooden hulls and weighty canvas sails. Cuyp’s pictorial sensitivities were also directed toward human and animal activities revolving around the water, which added visual and thematic interest to the inherent beauty of his river scenes.
This luminous painting, executed in the early 1640s, depicts his native Dordrecht from the west as seen from a pier near the village of Zwijndrecht, situated on the opposite bank of the river Maas [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Detail, Romeyn de Hooghe, “Bird's eye view of Dordrecht” in Beschryvinge der stad Dordrecht by Matthys Balen, Dordrecht, 1677, fol. 57, National Gallery of Art Library, Washington, DC, DJ411.D6 B18. The three small, wooden fishing skiffs tied up at the rough-hewn pier help give the painting its unpretentious, rustic charm. Across the river Maas rise Dordrecht’s city walls, with the thin spire of the Groothoofdspoort, a major gateway into the inner harbor, prominently at the left. Sailboats or rowboats, which operated constantly, provided ferry transportation across the river to Dordrecht’s neighboring villages.
Through the figures’ costumes, Cuyp has effectively captured the differing character of the lands on either side of the Maas. A small rowboat ferrying two burghers, distinguishable by their mode of dress, approaches the Zwijndrecht pier where travelers await the voyage to Dordrecht. Whether rural folk or city dwellers dressed for an outing—the man holding a rifle presumably has gone hunting—those at the pier wear clothing suited for activities in the countryside.
During the early years of his career, Cuyp was particularly intrigued with life along the piers, perhaps because of the variety of scenarios that could be portrayed in this setting. Cuyp’s inspiration may have been the Rotterdam painter Simon de Vlieger (Dutch, 1600/1601 - 1653), who also starkly contrasted the architectural forms of piers and adjacent buildings with vigorous skies and sun-filled, distant river views [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Simon de Vlieger, View of the Oostpoort, c. 1640, Hamburg Kunsthalle. De Vlieger, however, never focused as much on the human aspect of the scene as did his Dordrecht counterpart.
The forceful, even monumental character of Cuyp’s painting comes largely from the juxtaposition of the boldly modeled foreground forms with the light-filled riverscape beyond them. It is reinforced by the strong emphasis on the horizontal, not only of the pier and the distant horizon, but also of the ripples in the water. With this solid framework firmly established, the sailboats seem to glide effortlessly back and forth, catching the light winds that fill the air. This controlled yet vigorously executed manner of painting is one of Cuyp’s most distinctive characteristics, and is unlike that of any of his contemporaries. Given the freshness of his touch, it is always surprising to discover that Cuyp often repeated compositional elements in different paintings. For example, the rowboat and oarsman in this work are identical to the workman and boat hauling peat in Cuyp’s Cattle and Cottage Near a River from the early 1640s [fig. 3] [fig. 3] Aelbert Cuyp, Cattle and Cottage Near a River, early 1640s, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photo: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014