Near the water’s edge of an inland waterway, eight cows quietly chew their cud in the gentle winds of a late afternoon in summer. In the distance, a few sailboats glide along the river, their reflections shimmering in the peaceful water. On the crest of the gentle rise to the right, two herdsmen converse with a rider mounted on a large brown horse. Shafts of light breaking through the billowing clouds not only accentuate the figures’ diminutive forms but also seem to provide a spiritual blessing upon their presence. The overriding sense is that this is a blessed land—fertile, prosperous, and at peace.
To the seventeenth-century Dutch, the well-fed cow was more than just a symbol of the nation’s prosperity. Milk, butter, and cheese were important components of the Dutch diet, and succulent Dutch cheese was a major export product. Cuyp was not the first Dutch artist to focus on a herd of cows for his subject matter, but in his hands the theme took on a grandeur and dignity lacking in the work of his predecessors. Whether in the hilly, dense forest landscapes of Roelandt Savery (Dutch, 1576 - 1639) or the flatter fields of scenes by Herman Saftleven (Dutch, 1609 - 1685), cows were portrayed as inelegant, graceless animals that mill together in rather haphazard formations. Cuyp, however, seems to have perceived a certain nobility in the beast, one he emphasized by placing the viewer at a low vantage point and by silhouetting the cattle against a light-filled background. He simplified and purified their forms to give their heads sharp, angular shapes. He further emphasized these ennobled profiles by orienting his herd on a horizontal axis along which their overlapping forms become visually connected. Finally, he projected their heads forward, even those lying in the grass, in a way that suggests a degree of alertness and even intelligence not normally associated with this species.
This painting is one of several similar images that Cuyp painted in the late 1640s and early 1650s; another example is Landscape with Cows [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Aelbert Cuyp, Landscape with Cows, oil on panel, Collection of Ilone and George Kremer, Netherlands. In each of these works the viewpoint is low so that the animals take on added grandeur. The compositions are also linked by the way in which the herd is placed in the immediate foreground, along the bank of an inland waterway, and by the dramatic cloud formations that activate the sky. The stylistic evolution that led Cuyp to this imposing vision of pastoral life is complex. His picturesque scenes of rural life from the late 1630s and early 1640s belong to a tradition first introduced to Dutch art by Abraham Bloemaert (Dutch, 1566 - 1651), and developed by, among others, his pupil Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp (1594–1652), Aelbert Cuyp’s father. By the early 1640s, however, Aelbert began to move away from this style and developed a tonal approach to landscape under the influence of Jan van Goyen (Dutch, 1596 - 1656). His compositions, painted largely in yellow ochers, became simpler as he eliminated many picturesque elements from his scenes. Van Goyen’s interest in vigorous cloud formations, evident in his river landscapes from the late 1640s, also seems to have awakened Cuyp to the possibilities of incorporating such skies in his works. In River Landscape with Cows, Van Goyen’s influence can be seen in the way Cuyp’s free and energetic brushwork in the clouds creates effects that capture the varied atmospheric conditions of a Dutch midsummer day.
By the late 1640s, however, Cuyp also began to incorporate stylistic elements into his paintings that derive from the Dutch Italianate artists who were then returning to the Netherlands, among them Jan Both (Dutch, 1615/1618 - 1652), Nicolaes Pietersz Berchem (Dutch, 1620 - 1683), Jan Baptist Weenix (1621–1660/1661), and Jan Asselijn (Dutch, c. 1610 - 1652). Although Cuyp’s interest in depicting rural Dutch scenes remained essentially the same as in this work, he began to dramatize his images by portraying large foreground forms, particularly cattle, within a generalized, arcadian landscape.
Like other Dutch landscape artists, Cuyp based his painted scenes on two basic types of drawings made from life: extensive landscape drawings and studies of single figures and animals. One of his animal studies, that of a horse seen from behind, may have been the source for the horse on the crest of the hill [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Albert Cuyp, Two Studies of a Lean Horse and a Study of a Dog, c. 1647-1650, black chalk on cream antique laid paper, Harvard Art Museums / Fogg Museum, Loan from Maida and George Abrams, Boston Massachusetts, TL37360.13. Photo: Imaging Department ©President and Fellows of Harvard College. Although a number of Cuyp’s studies of cows resemble the animals in this painting, no known drawing served as a direct prototype for any of them.
Although this painting’s provenance prior to 1917 is not known, its recent history is remarkable. In 1938, on the eve of World War II, the four sons of Jewish industrialist Ignaz Petschek decided to flee their homes in Aussig, Czechoslovakia, in advance of the impending German invasion of their homeland. To express his contempt for the Nazis, Franz Petschek, who had inherited the Cuyp painting, had a copy made of it, which he left hanging on the wall of his home. The copyist also painted a temporary watercolor landscape over the River Landscape with Cows, which Petschek took with him on his family’s flight through Switzerland, France, and Spain. After crossing the Atlantic to Brazil aboard a freighter, the family finally arrived in New York City in 1940. Following the deaths of their father, Frank (Americanized from Franz), in 1963 and of their mother, Janina, in 1986, Elisabeth de Picciotto and Maria Petschek Smith donated Cuyp’s painting to the National Gallery of Art to express the family’s gratitude to the United States of America for the safe haven it gave to refugees, and for the freedom and opportunities it has afforded to so many throughout history.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014