The scarlet coat of the horseman catches our attention and we instinctively follow the direction of his whip, which he points away into the distance. And the concept of distance – just as much as the animals and figures in the foreground – is at the heart of this painting. Aelbert Cuyp has constructed the scene so that our eye is consistently drawn from near to far. A series of diagonal lines leads away towards the unseen horizon and is repeated several times, receding ever deeper into the landscape.
Cuyp has also infused the scene with a deep pastoral tranquillity. The golden glow of the evening sun highlights the contentment of the livestock, especially the cattle which lie quietly chewing in the centre of the scene. Cuyp was especially well-known for his cows – for his ability to make them seem real, to suggest the weight of their horned heads, their sleepy eyes, their solidity and their strength.
Red immediately attracts the eye, especially if you contrast it with green, its complementary colour. So in this, one of the largest of Aelbert Cuyp’s many landscapes, the first thing that catches our attention is the scarlet coat of the horseman.
But this red is not a stop signal; we are not invited to be distracted by him for long. After all, he has his back to us and is preoccupied with chatting to a shepherdess. Instead, we follow the direction of his whip, which he points away into the distance. And the concept of distance – just as much as the animals and figures in the foreground – is at the heart of this painting.
Cuyp has carefully constructed the scene so that our eye is consistently drawn from near to far. First, he sets up a frame at the bottom of the picture – a line of thistles and other plants, half in shade, half caught by the sun – to offset the figures and animals in the foreground. Then he uses the high trees at the painting’s edge as a second frame, just behind the foreground figures. The trees form a strong upright line, and the overhanging branches arch inwards along the same line as the horseman’s whip. That diagonal, leading away towards the unseen horizon, is repeated several times. It recedes deeper into the landscape, then dissolves in the bright sunlight which streams in from the left and reflects off the still water. Look at the declining profile of the dark green trees, over the church tower and more dark foliage, to the group of horsemen in the middle distance. The same line is echoed by the sloping hillside beyond, and again in the silvery-grey cloud formation above.
As well as this long view stretching for miles into the distance, Cuyp has infused the scene with a sense of deep pastoral tranquillity. It is underlined by the quiet docility of the animals, but also the summer sunshine which bathes both figures and landscape in a golden glow. It was an effect which had recently been made fashionable by Dutch painters who had travelled to Rome and been influenced both by Italian painting styles and by the warmer light of the south.
Cuyp’s unique skill was his ability to combine this exotic light with something his customers must have found much more familiar: livestock. He was especially well-known for his ability to paint cows. He knew how to make them seem real, to suggest the weight of their horned heads, their sleepy eyes, their solidity and their strength. Cuyp’s patrons would have valued this: such a convincing, idyllic vision of the peaceful coexistence between man and cattle would also have been a reassuring reminder of one of the key sources of the nation’s prosperity. During the seventeenth century large amounts of flooded land had been reclaimed and converted to pasture, especially around Cuyp’s home town of Dordrecht. This, combined with improvements in breeding stock and better feeding practice, had fuelled a boom in cattle farming. Cheese and butter were not only national staples but key exports, and an important source of wealth.
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