This painting of herders and cattle situated along an inland waterway and near an evocative ruin has arcadian rather than agricultural associations. In this respect it parallels a rich literary tradition that glorified the values of country life. These ideals, espoused by P. C. Hooft, J. van Heemskerck, and other Dutch writers and playwrights of the seventeenth century, seemed to have had particular resonance in and around Dordrecht.
As is mentioned in the entry for Cuyp’s River Landscape with Cows, the artist’s father and teacher, Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp (1594–1652), painted a number of pastoral scenes in the 1630s and 1640s that had a profound influence on his son’s early style and choice of subject matter. By the time Cuyp executed this work his style had evolved to the point where the rhythms of the landscape, the foliage, and the clouds had been fully transformed. Even though the theme has Dutch precedents and the ruin in the background is a free adaptation of the Merwede Tower near Dordrecht, one no longer has the sense that the setting is specific to the Netherlands. Cliffs, diffused in golden light, now border the inland waterway; clouds hang quietly over the land rather than being swept by winds off the North Sea; and the cowherd in the bright red jacket could just as well be Italian as Dutch. Indeed, in the interim between River Landscape with Cows and this picture, the influences of Cuyp’s father and of Jan van Goyen (Dutch, 1596 - 1656) have been fully replaced by that of artists who had returned from Italy and had adopted the Italianate style, particularly Jan Both (Dutch, 1615/1618 - 1652) and Jan Baptist Weenix (1621–1660/1661). From these artists Cuyp also derived his broad, planar technique as well as the elegant and artificial rhythms of the foreground vines and branches one sees here.
Although it seems probable that Cuyp executed Herdsmen Tending Cattle in the middle to late 1650s, establishing a precise date for this work is difficult given the dearth of dated paintings in his oeuvre. Many of the components of this work—the contre-jour light effects, the atmospheric character of the distant landscape, the abstract shapes of foreground rocks and lacy branches, and even the donkey and its saddle—are similar in character to Horsemen and Herdsmen with Cattle, a painting that probably dates from the same period. The comparison between the works, however, points out that the nuances of light, abstractions of form, and compositional organization are not as developed in Herdsmen Tending Cattle as in Horsemen and Herdsmen with Cattle, which suggests that this work was executed somewhat earlier, before Cuyp had fully mastered Italianate ideas.
Although Herdsmen Tending Cattle has been widely published and praised, its poor appearance prior to its restoration in 1994 when discolored varnish and extensive overpaint were removed, made it difficult to fully appreciate its original qualities. The painting has, nevertheless, suffered various losses, and the surface is moderately abraded [see AbrasionA gradual loss of material on the surface. It can be caused by rubbing, wearing, or scraping against itself or another material. It may be a deteriorative process that occurs over time as a result of weathering or handling or it may be due to a deliberate attempt to smooth the material.]. The work appears to have been slightly trimmed, which would account for the rather cramped quality of the composition. Its original appearance can perhaps be deduced from an old copy in the collection of Graham Baron Ash in Norfolk, England. In addition to the Ash copy of the composition, a replica is owned by Dr. Wallace B. Shute of Ottawa.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014