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.

Lady and Gentleman on Horseback by Aelbert Cuyp

Lady and Gentleman on Horseback by Aelbert Cuyp (c.1655)

Over time I suppose one gets to like different artists and different paintings and one’s favourites constantly change.  For me however,  I have always loved the work of Aelbert Cuyp and along with Pieter Bruegel the Elder, I would have him constantly in my top five favourite artists.  I love his landscapes (see March 12th) and his riverscapes (see Feb 8th) but for My Daily Art Display today I have chosen one of his portraits, entitled Lady and Gentleman on Horseback which he painted around 1655.

Aelbert Jacobsz Cuyp was born in Dordrecht in 1620. His father was Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp, a successful portrait painter in the city and his mother was Aertken Cornelisdr van Cooten.  Aelbert was unquestionably raised up in an artistic environment with his grandfather Gerrit Cuyp being an eminent glass painter and his uncle’s step brother Benjamin Gerritsz Cuyp was a well known painter of religious, peasants and tavern scenes.  It was his father who gave Aelbert his earliest artistic tuition.  Although Dordrecht was not known for being an important artistic centre, it was a wealthy city and proud of being the oldest city and principal city of Holland and of great mercantile importance.     Aelbert used to assist his father in his studio by supplying landscape backgrounds for portrait commissions.  It is uncertain whether Cuyp had ever been an apprentice of a landscape painter, but he soon abandoned his father’s style and subject matter and turned almost exclusively to landscapes and riverscapes.  He would only occasionally paint portraits in his mature period.

Aelbert, despite branching off on his own as a painter, continued to assist his father right up to the time of his father’s death in 1652.  It is thought that the landscape works of Jan van Goyen, which were known to Cuyp, may have been instrumental in his artistic style as were the works of the Utrecht painter Jan Both.  Cuyp also followed the example of Jan van Goyen in the way he travelled throughout Holland sketching and gaining inspiration for future works.

In 1658, aged thirty eight, he married Cornelia Bosman, a wealthy widow of Johan van de Corput, a naval officer and member of an important Dordrecht family.  Cornelia had three children from her previous marriage.  Following his marriage, Cuyp appears to have painted less frequently, and stopped painting altogether years before his death due to his civic and religious responsibilities he had assumed after his marriage.  He was very wealthy and there were no financial pressures on him to produce paintings for sale.    He was listed in the register of the dead on 7 November 1691, and buried in the Augustinian Church at Dordrecht.

Today’s work of art, Lady and Gentleman on Horseback, highlights the popularity of the Dutch patrician pastime of hunting in the second half of the seventeenth century and many similar paintings exist.  This is a large oil on canvas work measuring 123cms x 172cms and depicts a man and a woman, probably husband and wife, on horseback setting off for the hunt.   There have been many names put forward as to the identity of the sitters, the most popular being that the man is Adriaen Stevensz Snouck and the lady his wife, Erkenraad Berk.  The lady’s father, Matthijs, was an important patron of Aelbert Cuyp, which may account for the prominence in the painting of his daughter in her gorgeous blue dress, who we see sitting resplendently on the back of a white horse with its brilliant red and gold saddlecloth.   The couple had just married and it could well be that Cuyp was commissioned to paint this to commemorate the happy event.

The landscape in the background is filled with light, typical of the popular Italianate style of the time.  We see a building in the background which is more than likely a fanciful evocation of an ancient fortified chateau which Cuyp may have seen on his travels.   The two hunters have their dogs with them.  There are two types of dog on this hunt, the turfters which were used to track and follow the scent of deer and greyhounds, which we see in the middle-ground of the painting, being controlled by an attendant and which run after the deer and bring them to bay.

X-Ray Image of painting

When this painting was x-rayed there were some interesting differences to the finished article.  The man originally wore a hat and his hair was much shorter and was seen lying on his shoulders.  His attire was different.  He had originally been painted in a military tunic and cape which were adorned with braids and buttons that in all likelihood were golden in colour.  It was also thought that the overall colour of the man’s clothing was a brilliant red rather than drab brown we see in today’s painting.   If we look at the woman we see that originally she wore a hat which was of a different shape to the one she is wearing now and originally the hat had feathers at the back of it.  Her dress was more loosely fitting and cascaded down the right flank of her horse.  Such changes to the painting must mean that the patrons were dissatisfied with the original composition and the fact that there was more going on in the original painting probably was viewed as being too distracting from the formal character of the double portrait and thus had to be revised.