Although the hunt became a popular pastime for Dutch patricians in the second half of the seventeenth century and numerous representations of the sport exist, Cuyp was the only Dutch artist to create large-scale formal portraits of aristocrats engaged in this activity. Lady and Gentleman on Horseback, which is the largest and most imposing of these works, is unique in that it represents an elegant equestrian couple, probably a husband and wife, setting out for the hunt. With an expansive light-filled arcadian landscape stretching behind them, they embark with two types of hounds: tufters to track the deer and follow the scent and greyhounds (under the control of an attendant) to run after the deer and bring them to bay.
The names of the sitters are not known with certainty. Nevertheless, a promising clue to their identity is a bust-length portrait, based on the male rider in this painting, which has been traditionally identified as Adriaen Stevensz Snouck (c. 1634–1671). Alan Chong, who discovered the resemblance between the two heads, has noted that Snouck, originally from Rotterdam, lived in The Hague until his marriage to Erkenraad Berk Matthisdr (1638–1712) in 1654. This marriage would have brought Snouck into contact with Cuyp since Erkenraad was the daughter of Matthijs Berk, Raad-Pennsionaris of Dordrecht and an important patron of the artist. This theory may well account for the prominence given to the female sitter, who, resplendent in her gorgeous blue dress, is mounted on a white horse with a brilliant red and gold saddlecloth.
Chong’s identification of the sitters accords well with technical examinations of the painting. As is evident in the X-radiographs [see X-radiographyA photographic or digital image analysis method that visually records an object's ability to absorb or transmit x-rays. The differential absorption pattern is useful for examining an object's internal structure as well as for comparing the variation in pigment types.] [fig. 1] [fig. 1] X-radiograph composite, Aelbert Cuyp, Lady and Gentleman on Horseback, c. 1655, reworked 1660/1665, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection, 1942.9.15, Cuyp OverpaintA layer of paint that covers original paint.ed and changed major portions of Lady and Gentleman on Horseback. The man originally wore a hat and had shorter hair, and his collar lay flat on his shoulders. He also wore a military-style tunic-and-cape combination, adorned with braids and buttons (presumably gold). This costume, the overall color of which was apparently a brilliant red rather than the current brown, was in many respects similar to that worn by Jan Six in Rembrandt’s famous portrait of 1654, in the Six Collection, Amsterdam.
The woman’s costume was also substantially changed. Her hat was a different shape and its feather sat farther back on her head; her dress fit more loosely and seems to have fallen over the right flank of her horse; and instead of her fairly low, elegantly gathered neckline, Cuyp originally had painted a plain flat collar that covered the woman’s shoulders. The costume was comparable to that seen in Bartholomeus van der Helst (1613–1670)’s 1654 portrait of Abraham del Court and Maria del Keerssegieter [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Bartholomeus van der Helst, Abraham del Court and His Wife Maria de Kaersgieter, 1654, oil on canvas, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photo: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam. From the stylistic characteristics of the outfits in Lady and Gentleman on Horseback, one can conclude that Cuyp painted the original version in about 1654–1655. As this probable period of execution coincides with the 1654 date of the marriage of Adriaen Snouck and Erkenraad Berk, it is possible that Cuyp received the initial commission to commemorate that event.
Aside from making changes in the figures’ costumes, Cuyp also substantially modified the mood of the painting by altering the woman’s pose and the arrangement of figures in the landscape. The woman originally assumed a less demure position, with her right arm extended, presumably to hold the reins tightly. This gesture would have given her a more active appearance than is evident in the final version. The background was also more dynamic. Instead of the two greyhounds and the young attendant walking behind the riders, Cuyp originally included five running greyhounds and a somewhat larger young man in red socks running with them. The juxtaposition of the portraits and the background figures would thus have been similar to that seen in the painting of the Pompe van Meerdervoort family in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Finally, the landscape also sloped in front from the left, and Cuyp may have made changes to the fanciful castlelike building at the far left.
Although no specific symbolism relating to marriage exists in the painting, the hunt as a theme was metaphorically linked with the game of love. Also, the large burdock leaves in the foreground were frequently associated with love. Cuyp had a special fondness for this plant and included it in the foreground of a number of his paintings. In most of these works the symbolic associations of the burdock leaf seem irrelevant to the meaning of the painting, but in this instance, with the dog calling attention to the plant’s presence, Cuyp may have intended to convey its symbolic associations.
The remarkable revisions in the painting suggest that the patrons were dissatisfied with the original composition. One may speculate that the activity of the hunt distracts from the formal character of the double portrait. The substantial modifications in costume, however, also indicate that the sitters wanted to update their image. For example, the male rider’s dignified brown jacket crossed by a sash and his long, wavy hair worn falling over the shoulders only came into vogue in about 1660. Cuyp’s patrons may also have desired a more refined style of portraiture than the artist had provided in his initial version. Indeed, these portraits are remarkably elegant for Cuyp, who is not noted for his nuanced modeling of the human form. Their style reflects that of Nicolaes Maes (Dutch, 1634 - 1693), who after returning to Dordrecht in the mid-1650s initiated a new fashion of portraiture in his native city patterned on the model of Sir Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599 - 1641). Maes’ Dordrecht portraits capture the elegant, aristocratic aspirations of a society that had begun to fashion itself after French styles of dress and decorum, and Cuyp clearly learned from this example.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014