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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Aelbert Cuyp/Horsemen and Herdsmen with Cattle/1655/1660,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed July 18, 2024).

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Apr 24, 2014 Version
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This broad, panoramic view of a river valley has long been considered one of Aelbert Cuyp’s most masterful works. In the soft light of the late afternoon, the humid air softens the landscape. Two brightly dressed horsemen have paused their elegant white and chestnut-colored steeds near a cluster of trees. Behind them, two men, one holding his mule’s leash, rest in the shade of the trees while keeping an eye on a small flock of sheep and a cow. On the left, another herdsman tends to two cows, and in the middle distance a rider on a galloping horse provides the only real sign of activity. Farther back, the water’s mirrorlike quality suggests calm conditions in which the sailboats will make only limited progress on the meandering river.

This painting is a prime example of the broad panoramic landscapes that Cuyp began to paint during the 1650s. The two hills surmounted by buildings that appear in the background are from the Rhine valley near the towns of Kleve and Kalkar, not far from the Dutch border. Cuyp visited this region around 1651–1652 and made drawings of these hills in a sketchbook he compiled on this trip. This distant panorama, however, is an imaginative evocation of the valley that he later painted in his studio.


This broad, panoramic view of a river valley has long been considered one of Cuyp’s most masterful works.[1] The golden light of the late afternoon sun and the moist air in the broad valley soften the landscape, casting a quiet, peaceful spell over the scene. In the foreground two elegant horsemen, whose exotic costumes indicate that they have come from a distant land, pause to discuss their route. Behind them, in the shade of a group of large trees, two shepherds rest amidst their animals. Another herdsman and his cows appear at the left, while a lone rider on a galloping horse in the middle distance is the scene’s only active element.

The pastoral quality of the painting reflects the influence of Dutch artists who had traveled to Italy and brought back images of the Roman campagna. Particularly important was the work of Jan Both (Dutch, 1615/1618 - 1652), who similarly set off views of distant river valleys with elegant trees grouped to one side.[2] Both also favored the contre-jour effects of the late afternoon light and frequently painted long diagonal shadows cast by the setting sun—atmospheric elements particularly apparent in this work. Still, the connections between Cuyp’s pastoral scenes and Both’s Italianate views can be overstated. Peasants with their donkeys pass through Both’s mountainous landscapes, whereas in this work, elegant foreigners ride finely bred steeds through a broad, open landscape. The distinctive character of Cuyp’s travelers indicates that his approach is fundamentally different from Both’s, whose peasants fit comfortably into his landscapes as integral components of the artist’s idealized vision of the Roman campagna. Cuyp’s travelers, on the other hand, do not belong to the land nor do they fit within it. The exotic horsemen provide striking visual accents for the composition, but they also engage the viewer, raising questions about the riders’ identities, their travels, and their destination.

Despite the evocative quality of Cuyp’s pastoral scene, the landscape is based on a real site: the Rhine valley near the towns of Kleve and Kalkar, not far from the Dutch border. The identifying features are two background hills: the Monterberg, the steep-sided hill on the left with twin towers at its summit, and the Eltenberg, surmounted by the partially ruined monastery of Hochelten. These hills, also depicted in other paintings, [3] are recognizable from drawings of these sites that Cuyp made on his trip to this area of the Rhine in about 1651–1652.[4]

Nevertheless, a comparison of Horsemen and Herdsmen with Cattle with these drawings indicates that Cuyp freely interpreted topographic elements in this painting. He depicts the Monterberg as a much higher hill than it is in reality, and the two towers are seen to such advantage only from the opposite viewpoint.[5] Finally, the Monterberg and the Eltenberg do not lie in such close proximity and cannot be seen together in the way that Cuyp has represented them.[6] Given the freedom with which the artist combined these landscape elements, the towns vaguely discernible in the river valley are probably Cuyp’s own creations, intended to suggest the character of this beautiful stretch along the Rhine.[7]

Aside from reusing landscape elements, Cuyp also repeated figures and animal motifs in his paintings. The gray horse, for example, is identical to that in Lady and Gentleman on Horseback,[8] and the galloping horse and rider reappear in Michiel and Cornelis Pompe van Meerdervoort with Their Tutor.[9] Cuyp’s ease with recycling his motifs and the fact that he rarely dated his landscapes make it difficult to establish an exact chronology for his work. Nevertheless, the expansiveness of the panorama; the soft, atmospheric qualities of the river valley, which derive from Cuyp’s broad, planar technique of applying paint; and the elegance of the riders are elements associated with paintings he started in the mid-to-late 1650s. An increasing artificiality of light effects and the introduction in the foreground of twisted saplings and large decorative leaves are other distinctive characteristics of Cuyp’s mature style. This artificiality is particularly striking in this painting, in which diagonal shadows fall across rocks and foliage without any indication of their three-dimensionality. Landscape with Horse Trainers [fig. 1], which hung as a pendant to the National Gallery picture when the two paintings were together in the Van Slingeland collection in the eighteenth century, stylistically contains similar characteristics.[10]

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


lower right: A.cuijp.



Johan van der Linden van Slingeland [1701-1782], Dordrecht, by 1752;[1] (his estate sale, at his residence by Yver and Delfos, Dordrecht, 22 August 1785 and days following, no. 71); Fouquet.[2] Albert Dubois, Paris; (his sale, Le Brun and Julliot at Hôtel Bullion, Paris, 20 December 1785 and days following, no. 16, bought in). William Smith [1756-1835], Norwich;[3] sold privately to Edward Gray, who sold it in 1830.[4] Alexander Baring, later 1st baron Ashburton [1774-1848], Bath House, London, by 1834;[5] by inheritance in his family to Francis Denzil Edward Baring, 5th baron Ashburton [1866-1938], The Grange, Northington, Hampshire;[6] sold 1907 with the entire Ashburton collection to a syndicate of (Thomas Agnew & Sons, London; Arthur J. Sulley & Co., London; and Asher Wertheimer, London);[7] sold 1909 to Peter A.B. Widener, Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania;[8] inheritance from Estate of Peter A.B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; gift 1942 to NGA.

Exhibition History

Italian Recollections: Dutch Painters of the Golden Age, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1990, no. 28.
Aelbert Cuyp, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; The National Gallery, London; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2001-2002, no. 38, repro.
Loan for display with permanent collection , Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, The Hague, 2002-2004.

Technical Summary

The original, medium-weight, plain-weave fabric support has been lined with the tacking margins trimmed. Cusping on all sides indicates that the original dimensions have been retained. The ground consists of two layers: a lower layer containing white and red pigments and an upper midtone gray layer.[1] The upper gray layer acts as a middle tone from which the artist worked both up and down, applying lighter tones to create the sky, ships, and buildings and darker tones to define foliage of the middleground.

The paint is applied in thin layers, both opaque and translucent, blended wet-into-wet with minimal brushmarking and no appreciable impasto. When creating the sky, Cuyp appears to have applied a lighter gray blue over the middle tone gray, and then scraped through it with the butt end of his brush to place the outlines of forms against the sky. This indented line is visible under magnification only in the sky, in the following areas: along the outline of the left mounted figure and in parts of the left outline of his horse’s head, in the left side of the cloud, and intermittently where the foliage in the trees at the top right meets the sky. This technique may have been used to refine outlines in places rather than as a tool for general placement, since the line is not apparent in all areas. It is also possible that this indented line was once more generally visible, but that it was occasionally covered up by succeeding layers of paint.

Cuyp left large areas of the foreground, the horsemen, the largest tree at right, and the hill with the tower in the left middleground in reserve. The sheep and seated figures at the far right were painted on top of the trees and foliage. In the middleground landscape, the artist painted a foreground sapling before adding the peach-colored tonality to the hills, an unusual sequence of paint application. Cuyp altered the position of the two towers on the Monterberg, the hill in the distant left, and raised the height of the hill.

Numerous scattered tiny losses, particularly along the edges but also in the face of the seated figure at the right, indicate a history of flaking, but abrasion is slight. The painting was lined in 1967. At that time varnish and inpainting were applied over the exhisting discolored varnish. In 1997, the discolored varnish layers and inpainting were removed when the painting underwent a thorough conservation treatment.


[1] The painting was treated in 1997, at which time the ground layers were characterized by cross-sectional analysis. The analysis was performed by the NGA Scientific Research Department (see report dated August 26, 1997, in NGA Conservation department files). During this same treatment, the NGA Scientific Research department also analyzed the pigments using polarized light microscopy and found them to be consistent with the period (see report dated May 19, 1997, in NGA Conservation department files). The medium was also analyzed by the NGA Scientific Research department using infrared microscopy and gas chromatography and found to be drying oil (see report dated October 8, 1997, in NGA Conservation department files).



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Jervis-White-Jervis, Lady Marian. Painting and Celebrated Painters, Ancient and Modern. 2 vols. London, 1854: 2:217, 325.
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Cundall, Frank. The Landscape and Pastoral Painters of Holland: Ruisdael, Hobbema, Cuijp, Potter. Illustrated biographies of the great artists. London, 1891: 163.
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