Clear, soft light illuminates a peaceful landscape, giving a sense that everything is in its place and all’s well with the world. But the rider’s attention is caught by a young lad who seems to point anxiously towards something likely to disturb the tranquillity. Crouched in the bushes on the left, a man aims his gun at the birds on the river.
Cuyp was probably the most important of the Dutch landscape artists who drew on the experience and style of other Dutch painters who had lived and worked in Rome for several years, admiring their images of pastoral idylls bathed in golden light. When this painting arrived in Britain in 1764 it was highly praised, causing an upsurge of enthusiasm for Cuyp’s work, and many of his most important pictures were brought into the country.
Clear, soft light illuminates a peaceful landscape. Clouds seem to hover in the sky, the trees are still and faint haze drifts across the far side of the wide river. There’s not a breath of wind to disturb the calm waters or the perfect reflections of the towers and turrets of the distant town. There’s a sense that everything is in its place and all’s well with the world.
The cows look well fed and contented. Cuyp has painted them in deep, rich, glossy colours, and we sense their weight and warmth as they bask in the sun, lazily surveying the aristocratic rider who pauses beside them. The sun catches the haunch of the white horse and the rider’s cloak, as well as the trunk of a silver birch tree and the enormous leaves at its base.
Further along the path, a woman with a long shepherd’s crook tends a flock of sheep, the animals jostling each other about on the rise of the riverbank. The woman and the child beside her turn their heads towards a man walking briskly towards them, while the rider’s attention is caught by a young lad. He seems to point anxiously towards something likely to disturb the tranquillity of the scene. Crouched in the bushes on the left and poised on the point of firing, a man aims his gun at the birds on the river. A shot would echo across the water, startling the animals and destroying the atmosphere. This gives a slight edge to the picture: rather than remaining a rustic idyll, almost too good to be true, the scene is brought into the real world.
The image is, in fact, definitely too good to be true – it’s an elegant, evocative construction drawn from the imagination. A print of the picture was once identified as ‘a view on the Maas at Dordrecht’, and while Cuyp did make sketches of views of that and other areas on his travels in the Netherlands and Germany, this particular view can’t be identified. The river in the painting is not the Maas. There are no mountains in Holland, the buildings might be from anywhere and the light is the pale gold of a Mediterranean morning.
Cuyp was probably the most important of the Dutch landscape artists who drew on the experience and style of those who had lived and worked in Rome for several years, like Jan Both. While there, Both had known Claude and Poussin, and admired their images of pastoral idylls bathed in golden light, often a background for stories from classical myth or the Bible. Jan Both brought the ideas and techniques of these two artists back to Holland, where the resultant pictures proved popular with collectors (see, for instance, his large painting A Landscape with the Judgement of Paris). Other artists also brought back sketchbooks and drawings, which seem to have been shared between like-minded artists who painted in the Italianate style – even if, like Cuyp, they had never been to Italy.
We don’t know who this picture was painted for, but it was probably intended to hang on the walls of one of the great mansions owned by wealthy and sometimes noble families in Holland at the time. Cuyp himself married into one of these families shortly after he painted this important landscape, when it appears he almost gave up painting altogether.
In 1764, the picture was brought into England and sold to a Scottish nobleman, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, a close friend of George III. It was placed in his collection at Luton Hoo, his large estate not far from London. Cuyp’s work was virtually unknown in Britain at the time and when an etching was made of the picture, the printmaker gave Cuyp’s first name as Adriaen, not Aelbert. A short while afterwards, John Boydell, a well-known publisher and printmaker, praised it as ‘entirely from nature, inexpressibly bright, clear and sunny: the choice of scene is elegant and picturesque’. This was the start of an upsurge of enthusiasm for Cuyp’s work in Britain. The great majority of his best pictures were imported between 1760 and 1840, and are still here, some in the kind of great house for which this painting was probably made.
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