Aelbert Cuyp at the National Gallery
Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review
AFTER its trip to Pisanello's Italian duchies, the National Gallery has returned to the delta of the Rhine and, in its latest borrowed exhibition, settled on the Dordrecht of Aelbert Cuyp. Dordrecht stands sentinel on the confluence of the Rhine and the Maas as, groping through flat pastures to the North Sea, they loosely twine into a tangle of fields and channels. In the course of their vagaries the rivers have moulded the south of Holland into something like an archipelago, of which Dordrecht is almost an island. The Customs House and the blunt gullied bulk of the Grote Kirk, manifestations of commerce and Calvinism, dominated a town famous for its rigorous Dutch cleanliness. An English traveller of Cuyp's time noted that he could pass dryshod through its streets in midwinter.
Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691) never left his corner of Holland except to visit the hills and curly oakwoods on the German border dear to his contemporary, Jacob van Ruisdael. His province was littoral and watery: low damp but affluent grazing-land, where cattle slaked their innocent thirst from an estuary shared with peascod fishing-boats, some of the boats half-sunk in reeds, others bouncing seawards, their sails full of wind. In Cuyp's representation the tautness of their bent masts under canvas mimics the bulges of the cows' ribs through their slack hides. As the cattle paddle, ruminant and ruminating, sociably fussing with flank to flank, they occasionally raise prying muzzles to the horizon where, spectral in the mist and distance out at sea, boats swing to the wind. The full tide of the sea, thrusting up the rivers' mackerel-bellied glimmer, slaps under small planked jetties, to recede through drenched grass. On the banks are huts shared by herdsmen and fishers, whose nets are sometimes seen drying in the ne arby cowsheds (Drover and Cows by a River, London National Gallery; Cattle and Cottage near a River, Rotterdam Museum; Maidservant in a Cowshed, Dordrecht Museum).
Water seeps through the soil it has already truncated and bounded. Riverfowl and quadrupeds convene amiably around the flooded ruin of a castle, which rises from the water as an island of mellowly embrowned towers, their vegetated sandstone ruddy in the sun, although their vaults sink crumbling into the bed of a fortuitous moat (Ubbergen Castle, London National Gallery). Another such castle, its moat iced over, is circled by skaters, though dourer than those of Avercamp, and thronged with the customers of a beer-tent put up in the lee of a rampart (Scene on the Ice around the Merwedehuis, Private Collection).
Cuyp was a churchwardenly man: district magistrate, Elder of the Reformed Church, and trustee for a church hospital. As a patrician of Dordrecht and a patriot, he paid homage to Holland as a trim and handsome place where even the windmills rotated their sails with a Sunday sobriety; much as his contemporary Teniers depicted Flanders. Like Gainsborough, Cuyp worked in his studio from sketches made in the open air, so that a selective memory and imagination could intervene between what was observed and what was represented. Sometimes he conflated drawings of two different localities in one picture, as in his View of Utrecht (Residenzgalerie, Salzburg) in which he places a church from a crowded city-centre in open countryside. The oakwood in the series of pictures of Orpheus among animals is based on two of Cuyp's drawings in the British Museum. Since he never strayed from his quarter of Holland, he could not have visited the famous menagerie which the Emperor Rudolf II had established in Prague, so the exotic c reatures around Orpheus must be based on prints or drawings, perhaps by Roelandt Savery, although transfigured by Cuyp's fresh vision. Cuyp sometimes idealised the landscapes of his country. At one with Teniers who, across the River Maas, shared the same terrain, he loved neatness and shunned any land managed by slovenly farmers. …