The almost magical light effects and general sense of tranquility in Cuyp's pictures may relate to contemporary ideals (already current at the very beginning of the century) of a Dutch golden age. The term denoted an idyllic era in which man lived in peace and harmony with nature, recalling the golden age described by the ancient Roman writer Ovid. Although peace would not be achieved in the Netherlands until the end of the Eighty Years' War with Spain in 1648, the Twelve-Year Truce of 1609-1621 had already inspired many to believe that the Netherlands was entering a splendid period of economic prosperity and spiritual well-being.

Aelbert Cuyp, Dordrecht from the North, mid-1650s, 38 1/2 x 54 1/4 in., English Heritage (The Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood)

The Dutch also likened their land to arcadia, another idyllic paradise. This ancient mythic retreat, populated by romantically inclined shepherds, shepherdesses, nymphs, and satyrs, was frequently evoked in contemporary poems, prose, and plays. In the 1630s a new literary genre appeared in the Netherlands, describing the Dutch countryside as if it were this mythic retreat. These texts, known as Arcadiae, were inspired by similar Italian, English, and Spanish literary traditions and became increasingly popular throughout the seventeenth century. In Lambert van den Bos' Dordrechtsche arcadia (1662), glorious descriptions of the surroundings of Dordrecht are strikingly similar in character to Cuyp's images of his native city. Like the ferry passengers at the left of Cuyp's Dordrecht from the North, travelers in Van den Bos' book cross the river Merwede and enjoy the gentle early evening air. Despite their different forms of expression, Cuyp and Van den Bos both combine a profound sense of place and history with an idyllic atmosphere of peace and tranquility.

Aelbert Cuyp, River Landscape with Cows, 1648 - 1650, 26 3/4 x 35 1/2 in.. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Family Petschek

The sense of well-being pervading a great number of Cuyp's more rural pictures parallels the keen appreciation for country life evident during Cuyp's day. Not only were an increasing number of country houses built around midcentury, but the pleasures of country life were also frequently celebrated in so-called hofdicht or country house poems. They, like Cuyp's pictures, evoke the spiritual nourishment to be found in nature.

The Dutch countryside was fertile and its inhabitants were able to stretch its limits, using dikes and windmills to gain new land. They attributed their prosperity to God's blessing and compared themselves to the ancient Israelites, God's chosen people. According to William Temple, a seventeenth-century English traveler, the Dutch even called their country vaderland (fatherland), a term otherwise reserved exclusively for the Holy Land, the destination of every Christian pilgrim. Cuyp appears to have incorporated such spiritual ideas in his landscapes. As the Calvinists did not approve of depictions of God in human guise, allusions to God's presence were subtlely indicated, whether through a centrally located church or spectacular light effects such as the beams breaking through the billowing clouds in Cuyp's River Landscape with Cows.




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