Aelbert Cuyp made this painting when he was aged about 20 or 21 and it shows his early grasp of how to create a sense of distance and evoke the atmosphere of a cloudy day in the Low Countries.
At the time, Cuyp was much influenced by the landscape painter Jan van Goyen. Both artists used a very restricted colour scheme of greys, browns and greens which helps capture the mood of the prevailing weather. But they avoided too much gloominess by setting the horizon very low on the canvas so that the sky dominates, filling the composition with a sense of airiness.
Here, Cuyp showed his talent for other subtle light effects: he used the strongest shades in the foreground, where the water turns almost black, while the brightness in the middle of the painting lifts the atmosphere. The thin strip of land beyond shimmers between water and sky, and the clouds take the eye upwards.
This painting was made by Aelbert Cuyp when he was right at the beginning of his career, probably aged about 20 or 21 – he was later to become one of the most successful landscape painters of his time. The picture shows his early grasp of how to create a sense of distance and evoke the atmosphere of a cloudy day in the Low Countries.
At the time Cuyp, who was based in Dordrecht, was much influenced by Jan van Goyen, a landscape painter 24 years his senior who worked about 30 miles away in The Hague. If you compare this painting with a contemporary one by van Goyen – A Windmill by a River, for example – you can see how Cuyp has followed some of the older artist’s techniques. Both painters used a very restricted palette of greys, browns and greens which helps capture the mood of the prevailing weather. But they avoided too much gloominess by setting the horizon very low on the canvas so that the sky dominates, filling the composition with light and a sense of airiness.
Cuyp was already showing his talent for other subtle light effects. In this painting, the strongest shades are in the foreground: the reflections turn the water almost black, especially on the lower right-hand side and around what appear to be two fishing baskets, or eel traps, floating on the left. By contrast the brightness in the middle of the painting lifts the atmosphere. The thin strip of land beyond seems almost to shimmer between water and sky, while the clouds take the eye upwards.
Human intervention in the landscape is similarly subtle in its effect. The only figures in the painting are given a low profile. The two men in the small boat don’t even break the line of the church roof on the horizon above them. However, the long pole held by the standing figure, together with the angled spas and ropes of the sailing boats and the sticks emerging from the water in the foreground, are much more prominent. They form a series of straight, upright lines which are echoed by the short diagonals of the distant windmill sails. These may be grey and distant but they stand out clearly against the lighter sky.
When compared with later pictures, this early painting allows us to see how much Cuyp’s work changed as he matured. Around this time, several talented Dutch landscape painters who had travelled to Rome – and experienced the more intense light of Italy – returned to the Low Countries to work. The Italianate painter who most inspired Cuyp was Jan Both, who came back to Holland in 1641; Muleteers, and a Herdsman with an Ox and Goats by a Pool, painted in about 1645, shows how Both suffused his landscapes with a much warmer light. It was an effect that Cuyp was soon to adopt and develop as his own career progressed.
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