Aelbert Cuyp

Herdsmen Tending Cattle

1655/1660
Oil on canvas, 66 x 87.6 cm.
National Gallery, Washington D. C.
Herdsmen Tending Cattle, Aelbert Cuyp

Aelbert CUYP
Dordrecht 1620-Dordrecht 1691

In the last 50 years, Cuyp has occupied an invidious position in the context of Dutch seventeenth-century painting because his very virtues have led him to be over-esteemed. He occupies a minor position in the development of painting in the seventeenth, century as he worked all his life in the relative isolation of his native Dordrecht. His earliest pictures are delightful essays in the manner of van Goyen, the major difference being that Cuyp preferred a slightly more cheerful palette and paid greater attention to detail. It is not quite clear what caused Cuyp to change his style so radically from his early manner, but it has been assumed to have been the influence of the newly fashionable Italian-style landscapes painted in Utrecht in the 1640s following the return of Jan Both from Italy. Cuyp, however, did not slavishly imitate; he soon evolved his own very special style. This frequently included the much-abused cows which he used as compositional props to frame his perfectly balanced distances, which are so often punctuated by the unfinished Gothic tower of the Grote Kerk at Dordrecht.

Cuyp responded to nature more than his detractors are prepared to admit, and a proportion of his pictures, contain no cows at all. The artist's interest in the depiction of atmosphere went a long way beyond a limp imitation, of Italian-type light-which of course he had never seen. This is best revealed in his seascapes. They usually depict rather square-looking boats becalmed. They have none of the elegance of those of Jan van de Cappelle, but they are made appealing by the fall of light. The result is a special feeling of calm which permeates almost all Cuyp's pictures; only occasionally is the calm disturbed by a hunter about to shoot a bird.

As is so often found with painters who did not pursue an official career of academic success and royal or state patronage, details about the artist's life are scant indeed. He was the son of the Dordrecht portrait painter Jacob Gerritsz. Cuyp (1594–1652), and indeed a few portraits have been attributed to Aelbert himself. His life was probably uneventful and the most adventurous thing he ever did was to paint a few ducks and hens.

Cuyp could well be described as the archetypal provincial painter. He did not make the move to Amsterdam, and the only evidence that he left Dordrecht at all is the fact that his pictures sometimes take other places as their subject, for instance Nijmegen. It is sad that this humble and inscrutable man should have enjoyed such adulation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and should have had such criticism heaped upon him in the twentieth.