Dordrecht Harbour by Moonlight by Aelbert Cuyp

Dordrecht Harbour by Moonlight by Aelbert Cuyp (c.1645)

I am putting religion and religious paintings behind me today and I am going to feature a truly beautiful riverscape painting by one of my favourite artists, Aelbert Cuyp.   I really cannot get enough of this man’s paintings.  Whether it be his landscapes, riverscapes or seascapes, they are all delights to behold.  My Daily Art Display today is the painting Cuyp completed around 1645 entitled Dordrecht Harbor by Night and which now hangs in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne.

Aelbert Cuyp was born in 1620 and is the most famous member of the Cuyp family and today is proclaimed as one of the greatest of all landscape painters.  He was the son and, more than likely, the pupil of Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp, a portrait painter.  In his early works one can detect the influence of Jan van Goyen, the prolific seventeenth century Dutch landscape painter.  Aelbert was born and died at Dordrecht, and spent a lot of time travelling along the great rivers of Holland reaching the eastern borders of the country and the western part of what is now Westphalia, Germany.   He was an artist, who naturally signed his works, but very rarely dated them and thus it has been difficult for art historians to build up a chronological list of his works

In 1658 Cuyp married a wealthy widow, and in the 1660’s, with his newly found financial stability, he seems to have practically forsaken painting. He died in 1691 and was buried in the Augustijner Church in Dordrecht.   Although for a hundred years after his death his works seemed to have been ignored, but the eighteenth century proved a turning point for the sale of his paintings.   The greatest collector of his paintings was the eighteenth-century Dordrecht iron dealer and mint-master Johan van der Linden van Slingeland, who owned forty-one works by the artist.   After the sale of his collection in 1785, many of these paintings entered collections in England, where Cuyp’s work was greatly admired for their grandeur.

The popularity of his paintings in France and England grew unabated, so much so,  that by the late eighteenth century there were hardly any of his paintings left in his native Netherlands.   From fame in Europe came fame in America with art dealers clambering to get hold of his works.

It was around 1640 that Dutch painters began to be fascinated with the depiction of extraordinary light and weather conditions but such paintings were deemed to be one of the most complicated challenges faced by artists.

The challenge was to be able to accurately depict the various colours of the moonlight reflections.  It was interesting to read about the debate from the Italian Renaissance period, known as the paragone, in which one form of art, whether it be architecture, sculpture, painting or poetry, is championed to be the superior in comparison to the others.  Bearing in mind today’s featured work, it is interesting to see what Philips Angel, the Dutch Golden Age painter, and a contemporary of Cuyp, wrote in his published a defence of the art of painting:

“..unlike sculpture, painting can depict a rainbow, rain, thunder, lightning, clouds, vapour, light, reflections….. the rising of the sun, early morning, the decline of the sun, evening, the moon illuminating the night, with her attendant companions, the stars, reflections in the water…”

The painting, Dordrecht Harbor by Night is a beautiful study of moonlight over water.  The Dutch painter and esteemed biographer of 17th century Dutch artists, Arnold Houbraken, who lived in Dordrecht at the time of Cuyp was able to have firsthand knowledge of the artist’s work.  Of Cuyp, he wrote:

“.. [Cuyp] paid much attention to the time of day in which he portrayed his subjects, so that one can distinguish in his paintings the misty early mornings from the bright afternoons from the saffron-colored evening time…… I have also seen various moonlight scenes by him which were very realistic and arranged in such a way that the moon was beautifully reflected in the water….”

Aelbert Cuyp’s ability to depict a moonlight scene is exactly what we see in this painting.  Look how the moonlight shimmers on the still waters of the inland waterway.  Look at the colours the artist has used in his depiction of the clouds and sky.  It is an extremely atmospheric and haunting work with its sailboats at a dock across the harbour from Dordrecht’s Rietdijkspoort.  It is believed to be one of the few moonlight scenes painted by Cuyp.  There is an utter stillness to the painting.  Maybe just a whispered conversation of the men standing on the pier awaiting a morning ferry would be heard over the sound of the lapping water which caresses the pier structure and the wooden hulls of the sailing boats.   Above we have dark billowing clouds which try and mask the moonlight which is being cast onto the still water.  The moonlight refuses to be diffused by the threatening clouds and floods across the scene reflecting on the sails of the boats and the old stone windmill.   It would seem that bad weather is on its way or has just passed.

To look at this painting is almost theraputic.  Its calmness has a calming effect on the viewer.  Look at it, relax and enjoy.

The Maas at Dordrecht by Aelbert Cuyp

The Maas at Dordrecht by Aelbert Cuyp (1650)

I have been fortunate that wherever I have lived has been close to either the sea or a river and I have always been fascinated by the ships and boats that move on these waters.  I have spent many a memorable holiday staying in accommodation on both the Rhine and the Mosel Rivers and spent many happy hours relaxing, watching the laden barges as they travelled slowly up and down the busy waterways.  So today I decided to offer you a riverscape painting which encompasses all that I love about water and on which the barges that ply their trade,

My Daily Art Display artist today is the Dutch painter Aelbert Cuyp who was born in the Dutch town of Dordrecht which is on an island bordered by a number of rivers, one of which is the Oude Maas, an off-shoot of the Rhine.  Aelbert Cuyp was born in 1620 and came from a large family of painters but was by far the most famous.  He was the son of the portraitist Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp, who looked after his early training. He, in turn, assisted his father by supplying landscape backgrounds for his father’s portrait commissions.  Aelbert soon tired of portraiture and concentrated on landscapes and riverscapes.  He was a religious man and had an active involvement in the Dutch Reformed Church.

From his paintings of landscapes and townscapes it is apparent that at some time in his twenties he had travelled extensively within the Netherlands and along the upper Rhine in Germany.  Because of the Italianate lighting effects seen in his later works, it is thought he may have spent time in Italy and also mixed with other Dutch Italianate landscape painters.

In 1658, at the age of thirty eight, he married Cornelia Bosman, the wealthy widow of Johan van de Corput, a naval officer and member of a very wealthy Dordrecht family.  After his marriage Aelbert appeared to have spent less time painting and more time involved with church activities.  His new found wealth meant that he did not have to earn a living by selling his paintings.

Aelbert Cuyp died in Rotterdam in 1691, aged seventy one.

Today’s painting is entitled The Maas at Dordrecht which Cuyp painted in 1650 and is housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.   In this picture it is not the town of Dordrecht which has centre stage but the River Maas itself and the craft on it which are plying their trade on its waters.  This vast, sunny composition specifically accents one figure.   In the foreground we see a small boat which has come alongside a sailing barge.  In the boat we can see a dignitary dressed in a black jacket with an orange sash.  He could be the festival’s master of ceremonies and could also be the patron who commissioned Cuyp to document the historic event.  He is greeted by a distinguished looking gentleman who stands among numerous other figures, including a man beating a drum. On the left a second rowboat approaches, carrying other dignitaries and a trumpeter who signals their impending arrival. Most of the ships of the large fleet anchored near the city have their sails raised and flags flying as though they are about to embark on a voyage. The early morning light, which floods the tower of the great church and creates striking patterns on the clouds and sails, adds to the dramatic character of the scene.

It is almost certain that Cuyp was commissioned to mark this event in a painting.  The event, a two-week festival, is believed to have happened in 1646 when an enormous fleet of ships carrying thirty thousand soldiers was anchored off Dordrecht.  Crowds jam the docks, bugles and drums sound fanfares and cannons fire salutes.  One can see that the sunlight in the painting rakes across the panel and by doing so accentuates small bits of detail in the golden light.