In the mid-1830s, Gustav Waagen, director of the Royal Gallery at Berlin, made an extensive tour of British private collections, which, following the upheavals surrounding the French Revolution, had become one of the greatest storehouses of Old Master paintings in the world. Cordially greeted everywhere because of his charm and expertise, Waagen had the rare privilege of experiencing firsthand many of the great examples of European painting that were not otherwise accessible to the public. With this knowledge in mind, Waagen took careful notes and in 1838 published an account of the works of art he had seen in English private collections.
He published a revised and better-known edition, Treasures of Art in Great Britain, in three volumes from 1854 to 1857. Aelbert Cuyp’s The Maas at Dordrecht, in the collection of Sir Abraham Hume, was one of the outstanding masterpieces and Waagen described it as follows:
The chief picture, however, of the whole collection is a view of the Maas, with the town of Dort, and numerous ships, by this master, in a moderately warm but extremely clear evening light. The delicacy of aerial gradation in a series of vessels seen one behind the other is not to be described, and, at the same time, all is executed with the greatest ease and freedom. This picture, 3 ft. 10 in. high, by 5 ft. 6 1/2 in. wide, is a proof not only of the extraordinary talent of this master, but also of the astonishing height which the art of painting in general had attained in Holland in the seventeenth century.
Waagen’s enthusiastic response to The Maas at Dordrecht was widely shared, and the painting was featured in a number of exhibitions of Dutch painting from the time it was first brought to England around 1804. The appeal, as Waagen suggests, has much to do with the extraordinary light effects that Cuyp achieves as the rays of the early morning sun stream across the landscape, creating horizontal shadows in the clouds and striking the tower of the great church of Dordrecht and the sails of the ships at full force. The massive scale of the work gives the scene a dominating presence that is enhanced by the sweep of the clouds and powerfully conceived composition.
Cuyp spent his entire artistic career in Dordrecht, a wealthy urban center proud of its heritage as the oldest city in Holland and blessed with an extremely favorable geographic location in the estuary of the Maas and the Rhine rivers. Dordrecht was an important mercantile center, from which ships could easily sail to Rotterdam, Antwerp, the North Sea, or inland to Arnhem, Nijmegen, and beyond. While its well-protected harbor was lined with stately homes, its distinctive skyline was best viewed from the water, either from the Oude Maas to the west or from the Merwede to the north. From these vantage points one could admire the elegant spire of the Groothoofdspoort, the city’s major gate at the water side, and the massive Grote Kerk, the city’s symbolic center of power.
Cuyp has portrayed Dordrecht from the northeast, bathed in morning light. From this vantage point, either from a boat anchored in the Merwede or—more probable—from the village of Papendrecht on the far bank of this broad and busy river, an impressive panorama of the city stretches out before the viewer, encompassing not only the Groothoofdspoort and the Grote Kerk, with its massive yet unfinished tower, but also the broad expanse of the Maas as it flows past Dordrecht. Cuyp based this view on a panoramic drawing he made in the late 1640s [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Aelbert Cuyp, Dordrecht Viewed from the North, with the Grote Kerk, late 1640s, black chalk and gray wash, Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam. Photo © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Not only are the buildings identical to those in the drawing (even the windmill at the right is included), but so too are the two sailboats to the right of the Groothoofdspoort.
Waagen seems not to have been particularly curious about the event being depicted, but others have been. In 1827 John Burnet identified the scene as “The Embarkation of the Prince of Orange.” This identification relates back to an eighteenth-century tradition in which the officer in the sailing ship was misidentified as Prince Maurits, who had died in 1625. Neither the costume nor the physiognomy of the officer, however, resembles either Frederik Hendrik or Willem II, Princes of Orange who might be associated with this scene. The only recorded references to visits to Dordrecht by Frederik Hendrik and his family were in 1638 when they accompanied Maria de’ Medici on September 20 during her exile from France, and in 1643 when the Prince of Orange and Amalia van Solms accompanied by their son Willem II and his fourteen-year-old wife, Mary, anchored for the night at Zwijndrecht, on the opposite side of the Merwede from the city of Dordrecht. The style of this work, moreover, is incompatible with of Cuyp’s output from the late 1630s and early 1640s.
Another interpretation of the scene was proposed in 1929, when the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy, London. “The event represented is probably Charles II in the Dordrecht roads, May 26th, 1660, during his journey from Breda, where he had lived sometime, to The Hague and thence to England.” Although the association of the scene with Charles’ visit to Dordrecht has been repeated frequently in the literature, a number of objections weigh against it. As with the theory of the Princes of Orange, one searches in vain for a figure that resembles the future king of England, Charles II. No English flags or other signs of English royalty are visible. Moreover, the elaborate account of Charles’ trip published in 1660 makes it clear that the royal fleet sailed past Dordrecht and anchored only beyond the city, at the river Lek, near the lands of one of the most important dignitaries of the city, Heer van Beverweert. There Charles first heard the dramatic news that he had been restored to the crown, news that quickly changed his plans to spend the night before proceeding to Delft. As the message also indicated that an English fleet was off the coast of Holland ready to bring the royal couple back to London, they embarked immediately.
Even though the specifics of Cuyp’s artistic evolution are difficult to ascertain due to the absence of dated works, stylistic considerations make it highly unlikely that he has represented Charles’ visit. Cuyp’s paintings from the 1660s are not executed with the same emphasis on the weight and density of materials and with such concern for the characteristics of texture that one sees here. These qualities, which are reinforced here through the application of quite thick impastos, are far more characteristic of works from the late 1640s and early 1650s. Further indicating a date from this period is the style of the costumes, which is comparable to that seen in paintings from the late 1640s.
The event depicted in this painting appears to involve no royalty and probably for that reason has never been properly identified. Margarita Russell, however, has persuasively proposed that the scene depicts the assembling of the Dutch fleet at Dordrecht in July 1646. This remarkable event is extensively described in Mathys Balen’s chronicle of the city’s history. Balen writes that an enormous transport fleet, consisting of more ships than had ever come together at that location, and some thirty thousand foot soldiers gathered at Dordrecht for two weeks. The city magistrates ordered that free board and lodging should be given to the men. Everything the soldiers needed was provided—beer as well as bacon, bread as well as cakes—all adding to the festive air. Onlookers from Haarlem, Delft, Leiden, Amsterdam, Gouda, Rotterdam, The Hague, and elsewhere crowded into the city.
Balen’s description of the ships and their locations is extremely precise. The ships were anchored in the tidal current of the Merwede rather than moored alongside the piers. As is clear from his account, the “fleet” was a disparate group of ships, consisting of warships and also a wide variety of utilitarian and transport boats. Among them were the kitchen boats (keuken) used as ancillary “kitchens” and providing sleeping accommodations for the private servants and staff of the princely household; sailing vessels called uytlegers that were used for guard and pilot duties in the approaches to the entrances of the internal waterways; and pleyten, single-masted, wide-bodied ships that commonly served as ferryboats. Balen concludes his account by noting that the entire fleet set sail on July 12, some for Bergen op Zoom, and others for Sas van Gent. Prince Frederik Hendrik’s intent was almost certainly one last show of force against the southern Netherlands at the onset of negotiations for the truce, which would ultimately be signed at Münster in 1648. Nothing ever came of the plan, however, and so this event of such significance in the history of Dordrecht was of no consequence in the broader course of Dutch political history.
Balen’s description of the locations of the ships carrying the various regiments can be applied to the situation depicted in Cuyp’s painting. In the foreground left, a warship flying the Dutch tricolored flag seems under sail in midstream. The large massing of ships beyond it may be those containing the Frisian and English troops that Balen describes as being anchored near the Groothoofdspoort. Beyond these ships, to the right of the Groote Kerk, a large yacht fires a gun salute. This ship, which displays the Orange coat of arms, must be that of the lifeguards (Lijf-Schut-Bende) of Prince Frederik Hendrik that Balen indicates was anchored near the Blaupoort.
The focal point of Cuyp’s composition is not, however, an elaborate warship but the relatively simple pleyt in the right foreground. He painted it with great care. The ship is at anchor, with her bow in an easterly direction, not to the wind, but with the tidal current to the bow. It seems to be slack tide, about high water on the Maas, for the anchor cable hangs loosely and no one is busy with the halyards. The large and wide jib is lowered and the spritsail is in a half-lowered position. As is characteristic of these ships, the wooden hull is broader along the waterline than at the deck level. This profile kept the ship high in the water and allowed it to sail along the shallow inland waterways. One of the sideboards used to stabilize the craft when it was under sail is seen drawn up midway along its side.
Standing in the pleyt awaiting the arrival of the dignitaries in the rowboats is a portly officer who wears an orange sash under his brown cloak. Unfortunately, his identity is unknown, but the distinctive flags on the ship—that hanging from the stern with blue-white-blue bars and the smaller orange flag atop the mast—may yet provide a clue, although they are, as of yet, unidentified. In all likelihood the officials who are approaching the pleyt are coming to bid farewell just before the fleet’s departure. With the exception of the pleyt, all the ships have their sails fully raised. They would have waited for the ebb tide to help carry them along the inland waterways to Bergen op Zoom and Sas van Gent. To judge from the slack anchor line, the ripples of water against the bow of the pleyt, and the way it rests in the water, the ebb tide has just begun.
The probability is strong that these figures are representatives of Dordrecht because the standing young officer in the rowboat near the pleyt wears a red-and-white sash, the city’s colors. Even though he is given particular prominence in the painting, it seems unlikely that he was the most important emissary. His rowboat is quite undistinguished, particularly in comparison with the other transport boat, at far left, carrying three officials and the bugler. The burgomaster of Dordrecht at that time was Cornelis van Beveren, a distinguished patriarch, who was also the head of a family who were frequent patrons of Aelbert Cuyp. Van Beveren is certainly not the relatively youthful officer standing in the small rowboat, for in 1646 he was fifty-six years old. Van Beveren served with three other officers on the city’s Gecommitterde ten Belevde van Stad (administrative council): Jacob de Witt, Johann Dionijsz, and Cornelius van Someren. The standing figure is probably not one of these men either; aside from the fact that he is so young, it is unlikely that any one of the three council members would have been distinguished above the others.
The identity of the figure who is so clearly silhouetted against the shimmering water is of some interest because he may well have been the person who commissioned this large, complex painting. One possibility is that he was Matthijs Pompe, Vry-Heer van Slingeland, who in 1646 was twenty-five years old and already held the public office of shepen (bailiff, magistrate). It seems quite probable that given his official position and family connections, he could have been granted the honor of being the emissary sent by the city to present the burgomaster and other high-ranking city officials to an officer of the fleet as it was about to set sail. Pompe was married to a daughter of Cornelis van Beveren and was also the brother of Michiel Pompe van Meerdervoort, an important patron of Cuyp. Whether or not a relationship existed between Michiel Pompe, Vry-Heer van Slingeland, and Johan van der Linden van Slingeland, the eighteenth-century Dordrecht collector who is the first documentable owner of this work, is not known, but is certainly quite probable.
The Washington painting, however, should also be considered in relation to a painting at Waddesdon Manor, which may well have been executed as a companion piece [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Aelbert Cuyp, View on the Maas near Dordrecht, probably late 1650s, oil on canvas, National Trust, Waddesdon Manor and Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Photo: Pru Cuming Associates © The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor. The two works, which are virtually identical in size and which apparently hung together in the Slingeland collection in 1752, depict a continuous panoramic sweep of this impressive assemblage of ships anchored off Dordrecht in 1646. Here a comparable scene takes place, with distinguished individuals being transported to an awaiting sailing ship. It has been proposed that the rowboat contained Prince Frederik Hendrik inspecting the Dutch fleet, an uncertain identification. Frederik Hendrik may have been present at the “Groote Vergaderinge” in Dordrecht, for Balen mentions that his lifeguard was there. It seems, however, that he accompanied the troops by land rather than by water, at least as far as Breda.
While these paintings were almost surely commissioned works related to a specific event associated with Dordrecht, Cuyp’s masterful creations stemmed from a long-abiding interest in depicting scenes along the Maas and the Merwede rivers surrounding Dordrecht. In his Fishing Boat at Anchor, c. 1644, in the Getty Museum, for example, he depicts a panoramic, light-filled river view that focuses on a sailing boat with its jib lowered, very similar in character to the pleyt in the Washington painting. Also preceding the Washington painting is one in the Wallace Collection, which depicts a scene of Shipping on the Maas. Here a number of the same compositional elements can be found, including a man drumming in the pleyt as a small rowboat approaches its side. In the Wallace painting, however, the clouds in the sky do not take on such an active, compositionally significant role. Such dramatic clouds only begin to appear in Cuyp’s work around 1650, probably under the influence of Italianate painters returning to the Netherlands.
While the compositional motif of a ferryboat transferring passengers to small rowboats most likely derives from the example of Jan van Goyen (Dutch, 1596 - 1656), Cuyp’s depictions of the “Groote Vergaderinge” of 1646 in Dordrecht are more specifically related to the marine “parade” pictures created in the mid-to-late 1640s by Simon de Vlieger (Dutch, 1600/1601 - 1653) and Jan van de Cappelle (Dutch, 1624/1626 - 1679) [fig. 3] [fig. 3] Jan van de Capelle, Marine Parade, 1645, oil on canvas, private collection, Switzerland. The remarkably imposing yet atmospheric images of the large-scale massing of ships in a calm sea created by these artists probably provided Cuyp with the visual vocabulary necessary to transform his innate concerns with water views into such compositionally complex and yet balanced images. Cuyp, however, differs from these artists in the way he emphasizes the weight and massiveness of his forms, something that gives his scenes a tangibility that no other marine painter achieved to such a degree.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014