Neither the soft, hazy light of this picture nor its mountain path leading up through birch trees is typical of a seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting. Such a picture would show wide, flat countryside, lit with a cool northern light. This is an imaginary view based on a Dutch artist’s experience of the Mediterranean region, created with sketches and drawings he made while abroad.
The three years that Jan Both spent in Italy in his youth were spent studying the landscape and light of the countryside around Rome – the Campagna. Also living there was the great French landscape artist Claude, whose work had a profound influence on the young Both. When he returned to his native Utrecht, Both continued to paint in the Italianate style, which proved to be highly prized by Dutch collectors.
Neither the soft, hazy light nor the rocky mountain path leading up through sparse birch trees is typical of a seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting; such a picture would show green, flat countryside lit with a cool, northern light.
This is Italy – an imaginary view based on a Dutch artist’s experience of the Mediterranean countryside and created on his return to his native land, using sketches and drawings made while abroad. But the powerful white bull wading in the quiet pool is something that a Dutch audience would appreciate, since cattle were prized as a source of their prosperity. Goats were more likely to be seen as Italian, but cows were seen as particularly Dutch.
In many of his paintings Jan Both places us high up, as if on a mountainside, looking down at a vast, mellow landscape. But in this picture we are almost on a level with the animals and men, and the view of the distance is limited. It’s painted on an oak panel, which helped the smooth application of paint, allowing Both to show intricate detail. We see the small tuft of hair on a goat’s chin as he looks up from drinking, the reflection of a sapling in the still water and leaves fluttering against the gold sky.
Both sometimes invited other artists to paint the figures in his pictures, as in The Judgement of Paris: Cornelis van Poelenburgh, who had also been in Italy for some time, painted the mythical characters. A sharing of labour was quite common practice at this time. An artist could – and did often – specialise in a specific genre of painting, and could improve the drapery, background landscape or figures in someone else’s picture, which in no way detracted from people’s appreciation of the skills of the main artist.
But in Men with an Ox and Cattle by a Pool, Both painted the figures himself, suggesting character in a few strokes of the brush: the conversation between the elderly goatherd and the mounted peasant on the left, and the hunched shoulders of the herdsman faced with the stony pathway rising ahead of him. The silhouette of his broad-brimmed hat seems to pierce the sky over the horizon, the angle telling us that he’s turning his head – perhaps for a last glimpse of the distant, misty plain before he turns the corner and the climb begins.
The three years that Jan Both spent in Italy in his youth were spent studying the landscape and light of the countryside around Rome, known as the Campagna. There at the same time were the great French landscape artists, Claude and Poussin, whose work had a profound influence on the young Both. When he returned to his native Utrecht, Both continued to paint in the Italianate style he had adopted in Rome, and which proved to be successful with Dutch collectors.
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