Jacob and Aelbert Cuyp, Portrait of a Family in a Landscape, 1641, 61 x 96 7/16 in., Collection the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph R. Nash, Paris

Aelbert Cuyp came from a family of artists that had settled in Dordrecht, an old and prosperous town located at the junction of several major waterways, among them the Maas River. His grandfather Gerrit was a glazier and his father Jacob, a successful portrait painter who enjoyed the patronage of local aristocrats and members of the upper middle class. During the 1630s, the young Aelbert trained with his father, and in the early 1640s the two artists collaborated, with Jacob executing the portraits and Aelbert the landscapes.

By that time, Aelbert had already begun to paint independent works. Many of these were small-scale landscapes, such as River Scene with Distant Windmills, which depict Dutch farmland and waterways, and suggest the quiet harmony of man and nature. Native subject matter and a similarly narrow color range, primarily ochres and greenish browns, were prevalent during the 1630s and early 1640s, a period known as the tonal phase of Dutch landscape painting. Cuyp may have become acquainted with this style through the work of Jan van Goyen (1596 - 1656).

Aelbert Cuyp, A River Scene with Distant Windmills, early 1640s, 14 x 20 5/8 in., The National Gallery, London
Aelbert Cuyp, Detail of Orpheus Charming the Animals, c. 1640, 44 1/2 x 65 3/4 in., Private collection, Boston

Like many early seventeenth-century Dutch landscapists and marine painters, Aelbert Cuyp captured the essential harmony of humanity and nature, whether depicting farmers or shepherds in their fields, skaters enjoying the ice on a cold winter’s day, or ships gliding gracefully over inland waterways.

Cuyp also painted mythological and biblical scenes. A particularly ambitious large-scale picture of this type, painted early in his career, depicts the mythological hero Orpheus charming animals with his singing and playing. The scene may allude to harmonious leadership: just as Orpheus tames different animals with his music and eloquence, a good leader unites the various segments of society. The subject gave Cuyp the opportunity to depict a wide variety of animals, even rare species that he had probably never seen. For example, the jaguars in the foreground (which are less detailed in their execution than the horse behind them), may have been based on a print, and the pangolin (the spiny Asian mammal at right), on a stuffed specimen from an aristocratic Cabinet of Wonders.

Aelbert Cuyp, Utrecht with the Vecht River and the Pellekussenport, c. 1639, 6 15/16 x 12 1/8 in., Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett

About 1640, Aelbert Cuyp traveled widely in the Netherlands, making drawings of Utrecht, The Hague, Amersfoort, Arnhem, and Rhenen. He made frequent visits to Utrecht, where his father had trained as an artist. There, Aelbert may have met the landscape painter Jan Both (d. 1652), who pursued a career painting large-scale, Italianate landscapes bathed in golden light after he had returned from Italy in 1641. In the mid-1640s Cuyp's palette became more colorful, and, perhaps inspired by Jan Both's Italianate scenes, his landscapes began to incorporate hilly terrains suffused in the soft golden glow of early morning or evening light. While some of these landscapes are fanciful, others depict hills, the Grebbeberg for instance, that he encountered on his travels along the Rhine River to the eastern Netherlands.

Jan Both, An Italianate Evening Landscape, c. 1650, 54 1/2 x 68 in., National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons' Permanent Fund

By 1645, Cuyp had developed the visual vocabulary that he would continue to use throughout his career. Bathing his scenes in an enchanting atmospheric light and using a relatively low viewpoint, he created a sense of grandeur, whether depicting a meadow with grazing cows, farm buildings, waterways, the ruins of a historic monument, or the graceful cityscape of his hometown of Dordrecht.

He was also able to capture the dynamism of a historic event. In The Maas at Dordrecht, the assembly of the Dutch fleet in July 1646 is represented as a symbolic show of force on the eve of peace negotiations with the Spanish, with whom the Dutch had been at war since their revolt against Spanish rule in 1568. The large number of ships, each crowded to capacity, signifies the importance of the event. As one ship fires a salute, a drummer on the large sailing ship in the foreground announces the arrival of city dignitaries. Cuyp evoked the drama of the scene through the restless succession of sunlit sails, the dramatic cloud formations, and the flickering effects of light on the water.

Aelbert Cuyp, Two Horsemen on a Ridge, c. 1646 - 1648, 13x 16 3/4 in., Private collection, New York

In the early 1650s, Cuyp once again traveled east along the Rhine. After passing the city of Nijmegen and its medieval citadel The Valkhof, he reached Germany, where the river is flanked by steep hills. He recorded these scenes in drawings that remained a constant source of artistic inspiration throughout the 1650s. Many of these drawings --like those of the flat river landscape surrounding his native Dordrecht-- have a wide, panoramic format that Cuyp also used for some of his most majestic paintings of this period.

Even though Cuyp enjoyed considerable success as a painter, he seems to have painted less frequently in the waning years of his life. This development may relate to his 1658 marriage to Cornelia Boschman, the widow of a wealthy regent. During the 1660s and 1670s, he was also active as deacon and elder of the Reformed Church, regent of the sickhouse of the Grote Kerk in Dordrecht, and member of the High Court of Holland.

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