In this beautifully preserved, luminous work two horsemen have stopped on a small rise overlooking a broad river valley to ask local herdsmen for directions. The moment is one of little narrative significance, yet the low vantage point and the quiet dignity of the figures and cattle silhouetted against the blue sky give the scene a monumental grandeur far greater than the painting’s modest scale might seem to warrant. The golden light of the late afternoon sun further enhances the pastoral mood as it softens the landscape in the distance and casts a quiet, peaceful spell over the scene, a veritable Dutch Arcadia.
This evocative landscape is one of several similarly serene scenes depicting herdsmen tending cattle that Cuyp painted in the late 1640s and early 1650s, shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Münster in 1648 that ended the Dutch Revolt. This bucolic image conveys the aura of peace and pastoral well-being that must have been strongly felt after the 80 years of struggle leading to the formation of the Dutch Republic. Dairy cows, whose creamy milk yielded the cheeses and butter that were important to the Dutch economy, represented the wholesome prosperity of the Dutch nation, and this concept may underlie the significance Cuyp has given to the herd in this work. Cuyp emphasized the animals’ dignity by orienting the group on a horizontal axis along which their overlapping forms become visually connected. The two cows at the left, with their distinctively noble profiles, gaze out over the landscape, almost as guardians of the peaceful and verdant river valley stretching beyond them. Although Cuyp emphasized these pictorial qualities in this carefully considered composition, they are already evident in the chalk drawings of cows that he made in anticipation of paintings such as this [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Aelbert Cuyp, A Cow Lying Down, early 1650s, black chalk, gray wash, private collection, The Netherlands. These drawings, sometimes with small variations, must have served as models for Cuyp’s paintings. Here, for example, the resting cow gazing off to the left is also found in Cuyp’s Peasants and Cattle by the River Merwede, datable to the late 1650s [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Aelbert Cuyp, Peasants and Cattle by the River Merwede, c. 1658–1660, oil on panel, National Gallery, London, Bequeathed by John Staniforth Beckett, 1889, NG1289. © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY.
Cuyp’s paintings of the early 1640s are often tonal landscapes of the Dutch countryside similar to those made by Jan van Goyen (Dutch, 1596 - 1656). Around 1650, however, he began to create landscapes that reflect the influence of Dutch Italianate artists, among them Jan Both (Dutch, 1615/1618 - 1652), Nicolaes Pietersz Berchem (Dutch, 1620 - 1683), and Jan Asselijn (Dutch, c. 1610 - 1652), who were then returning to the Netherlands after prolonged stays in Italy. Cuyp adapted not only the golden light and contre-jour effects of the late afternoon sun that characterize their works, but also the gentle cloud formations that grace their skies. Following the Italianates’ inspiration, he also began rendering distant landscapes in a broadly suggestive manner and started using large, somewhat abstractly rendered shrubs as repoussoir elements in his foregrounds. As a result, paintings such as this one often have a generalized pastoral character that defies localization.
The evolution in Cuyp’s style is evident in a comparison of this painting of the mid-1650s with his River Landscape with Cows from the late 1640s [fig. 3] [fig. 3] Aelbert Cuyp, River Landscape with Cows, 1645/1650, oil on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Family Petschek (Aussig), 1986.70.1. Although both paintings portray a realm where man, animal, and nature coexist in peaceful harmony, the impact of the two works is strikingly different. The emphasis of the earlier work is on the dramatic sky, with shafts of light breaking through billowing clouds. In this later painting Cuyp has emphasized the quiet stillness of the air warmed by the sun—an effect he has reinforced by silhouetting the cattle prominently against the golden sky and by using muted tones in the distant river valley. The single puffy cloud formation that floats above the land is more decorative than real, a characteristic that becomes quite pronounced in his Arcadian images of the mid-1650s.
Despite the evocative quality of Landscape with Herdsmen, the setting is based on a real place: the valley of the Rhine River near the towns of Cleves and Calcar, not far from the Dutch border. In the early 1640s, when Cuyp first visited this broad river valley dotted with towns, churches, and windmills, he recorded his impressions in a series of large panoramic drawings that were once part of a sketchbook. Years later, when Cuyp painted Landscape with Herdsmen, he referred to one of these drawings: a view of Calcar with Monterberg, a hill on which stood the ruins of the castle of the dukes of Cleves, rising in the distance [fig. 4] [fig. 4] Aelbert Cuyp, View of Calcar on the Lower Rhine near Cleve, early 1640s, black chalk, grey wash, and watercolor, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, From the Collection of Rita and Frits Markus, Bequest of Rita Markus, 2005, 2005.330.4. Nevertheless, atmosphere, not topography, was Cuyp’s primary concern in this luminous painting, for Monterberg almost disappears from view beyond the gentle haze emanating from the river valley. The quiet, reflective quality of this scene captures the essence of Cuyp’s ideals of the Dutch Arcadia, an approach to landscape that characterizes the artist’s work throughout the rest of his career.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
June 30, 2017