by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
National Gallery of Art, Washington
The Maas at Dordrecht by Aelbert Cuyp, c. 1650

Redrawing the Landscape

By Roderick Conway Morris
DORDRECHT, The Netherlands 4 February 2022


The young Jane Eyre dreamed of creating ideal pictures with 'freely pencilled houses and trees, picturesque rocks and ruins, Cuyp-like groups of cattle'. At the time Charlotte Bronte was writing, readers would have been thoroughly familiar with the splendid ruminating cows, often depicted gazing contentedly into the distance, that adorn the charming, sun-drenched monumental landscapes of Aelbert Cuyp.

Cuyp had been one of the most admired and sought-after Dutch landscape artists in Britain since the mid-18th century and nearly all of his finest works were (and remain) in this country's private and public collections, leaving until recently not a single one of importance in either his home town of Dordrecht or the Netherlands.

The impact of Cuyp's paintings on the development of British landscape painting has long been recognized but, as is brilliantly revealed by In the Light of Cuyp: Aelbert Cuyp & Gainsborough, Constable, Turner - the first ever exhibition and book entirely devoted to this subject - they were influential to a much deeper and broader extent than was previously understood.

The show, curated by Sander Paarlberg, and the illuminating, beautifully designed and illustrated book of the same title, edited by Paarlberg and Marlies Enklaar, were originally planned by the Dordrechts Museum to mark the 400th anniversary of the artist's birth in 1620, but were of necessity postponed.

Aelbert Cuyp was born in Dordrecht and spent his entire life there, until his death in 1691, save for some sketching excursions in the region. Ironically, given his posthumous fame abroad, during his lifetime almost all his patrons were local and he seems to have been virtually unknown even in the rest of the Netherlands. However, at that time Dordrecht was an important and extremely prosperous town (which in 2020 also celebrated the 800th anniversary of being granted city rights), whose significance as a trading centre was only later eclipsed by that of nearby Rotterdam and Amsterdam. Cuyp clearly took a great pride in his home town, as is evident in his cityscapes, a genre he pioneered, his images of Dordrecht pre-dating, for example, Vermeer's View of Delft.

The sources of Dordrecht's wealth are thoroughly documented in Cuyp's paintings. His harbour pictures record this island city's busy maritime activities, which included trading commodities such as timber and importing French wines (for which the city held the monopoly for the Netherlands), fishing and the smoking of fish. During this period ambitious land reclamation schemes fostered a thriving dairy industry, celebrated in Cuyp's renowned depictions of grazing cattle, herders and milkmaids.

It was these very elements that, half a century after the artist's death, so appealed to the English aristocrats with their large estates who were driving the Agricultural Revolution and to the merchants with their trading and maritime interests who were the first foreign enthusiasts for his works. Before long Cuypmania gripped British buyers in these classes and, in the words of the artist's 19th-century Dutch biographer, Jan Veth, the 'most coveted pieces were transported across the English Channel in shiploads'. Within twenty-five years of the first Cuyps appearing on the English market, the publisher John Boydell was grandly observing in 1769: 'It is entirely owing to the taste of the British nation, that his pictures have been retrieved from obscurity.'

The Welsh painter Richard Wilson (1714-1782), regarded as' the father of English landscape painting', was especially inspired by the French artist Claude Lorrain and was himself described as 'the English Claude'. But Wilson was also among the first British artists to appreciate Cuyp, who in turn was being hailed in Britain as the 'Dutch Claude'.

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) would unquestionably have preferred to pursue a career as a landscape painter had that been a viable financial option at the time. He was already established as a virtuoso portraitist by the first outbreak of Cuypmania, but the English artist's landscapes bear witness to the intense interest Gainsborough took in Cuyp's work. Such canvases as Landscape with Cattle and Coastal Scene with Shipping and Cattle are almost reverent tributes to the Dutch Master. Gainsborough's daughter Margaret recorded his 'passionate fondness for Cuyp' and, significantly, the artist tended to reserve as gifts for those closest to him, such as Margaret and his friend and fellow viol player the composer Karl Friederich Abel, those images in which he most closely engaged with Cuyp.

In 1815 the British Institution held a spectacular exhibition in London of Dutch and Flemish painters, with the express purpose 'to excite in the British artists the ardour of emulation'. The show contained a dozen large Cuyps and after the exhibition closed a number of these pictures continued to be displayed, including the The Maas at Dordrecht, so that artists could study and copy them.

For many of the artists who attended it, the exhibition had enormous resonance for decades afterwards. Constable owned a copy of Cuyp's series of prints, The Set of the Cows, but the greatest single influence on him were perhaps the Dutch master's cloudscapes. In his skies Constable, like Cuyp, faithfully strove to reflect the seasons, the time of day and particular atmospheric conditions. Constable described the Dutch artist's Thunderstorm over Dordrecht as 'truly sublime' and this, along with the latter's The Mass at Dordrecht in a Storm, surely emboldened Constable to produce such images as Rainstorm over the Sea (1824-28).

Turner's first biographer Walter Thornbury described one of his early works as being 'steeped in a Cuyp-like afternoon sunshine'. But Turner was not the only artist to draw on the Dutch artist's wonderful handling of light, others included Augustus Wall Callcott, John Crome and John Burnet, now under-appreciated artists whose paintings are refreshingly re-assessed 'in the light of Cuyp' in the Dordrecht show and book.

In the year following the British Institution's 1815 show, Callcott exhibited at the RA his luminous, unashamedly Cuypian The Entrance to the Pool of London. Not to be outdone, Turner made the first of a series of journeys to Dordrecht, taking on both Callcott and the Dutch master on his own waters, unveiling at the RA in 1818 his Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed.

In his lectures as Professor of Perspective at the RA, Turner used the term 'atmospheric perspective' to describe 'a distance where colour becomes blended, as in the aerial medium of Claude, the glowing expanse of Cuyp or the exquisite feeling of Wilson'. And he explained that Cuyp achieved this 'glowing expanse' because he 'knew how to blend minutiae in all the golden colour of ambient vapour'. This comment could, of course, have applied equally to Turner's own works and indeed some wag observed that all his pictures could be called: 'Sun Rising through Vapour, sunrise or not'.

The extent to which Turner found himself viewing landscapes through Cuyp's eyes is reflected in marginal comments in his sketchbooks on his visits to the Netherlands, where he writes 'cyp' or 'quite a cyp'; but he also noted 'Cyp' while drawing the Thames, the Gulf of Salerno and Paris; 'Cup' on the Seine close to Rouen and 'Cypp' near Berwick. He at last gets the spelling right on a drawing of a view of a town from the water in his Kent Sketchbook. Critics often compared Turner's and Cuyp's works but, at a certain point according to the English artist's biographer Thornbury: 'He knew, as certainly as if an angel had told him, that he had outshone Cuyp.'

According to Constable's first biographer C.R. Leslie: 'at late periods of his life, Constable aimed and successfully, at grander and more evanescent effects of nature'. However, Leslie did not entirely approve of this development, thinking the artist at his best when 'copying her simplest aspects'.

This prejudice against Constable's later works lingered long, only being seriously challenged in the 1930s by Roger Fry and Kenneth Clark. However, any remaining doubts as to whether some of these works do not constitute some of the artist's greatest works should now be thoroughly dispelled by a superb exhibition at the RA, Late Constable, curated by Anne Lyles and Per Rumberg.

Constable was born in 1776, just over a year after Turner. Both trained at the Royal Academy Schools, but whereas Turner was elected a full member in 1802 Constable, despite his manifest achievements, had to wait until 1829. This was partly because Constable was purely a landscape painter, which was regarded by the Academy as an inferior genre to history and portrait painting, whereas Turner had a wider range. Nonetheless, it is scarcely credible that this is the first ever monographic exhibition at the RA devoted to Constable.

Among the many riches here are some marvellous Cloud Studies, The Cornfield (1826), Dedham Vale (1828), Rainstorm over the Sea (c.1824-8), Netley Abbey by Moonlight,(c.1833) and Arundel Mill and Castle, the last work Constable was painting when he died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1837.

In the Light of Cuyp; until 8 May 2022 at Dordrechts Museum. Dordrecht; +31 (0)78 770 8708;

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024