Aelbert Cuyp was an important landscape painter from the 17th century who contributed to the Dutch Golden Age. His handling of light was perhaps his finest attribute.
Cuyp was fortunate in coming from a fairly wealthy family which also included a number of artists, meaning that he was encouraged into this profession and could concentrate on developing his skills without any other distractions. This artist's life was not documented in much detail, and for this reason one must assume that most influence on his style would have come from his own family, plus any other artists that he might have come across in his native Dordrecht. This famous city lies relatively close to Rotterdam and is famed for its myriad of rivers which would inspire much of this artist's work. Many have described him as the Dutch Claude Lorrain which is a direct comment on his mastery of light within the landscape genre. He was also technically accomplished in other content which allowed him to vary some of these landscapes and produce an interesting body of work. You will find ships, architecture, animals and people within many of these sprawling scenes.
The artist would include large amounts of detail within his paintings and his skilled use of light would bring some of these to our attention. Cuyp would replicate reality, but also then amend elements to better suit his own taste, a little similar to how the Romanticists would later work. He also went through several periods of development in which his own innovations would start to replace the early influences that fell upon him at a young age. His family helped to teach him the technical side of painting and drawing but always encouraged him to forge his own path, stylistically, just as they had done. Some of the content that he used bore a similarity to that of his father, Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp, but Aelbert's interpretations were more evolved and certainly of a higher class. He would therefore become the most famous artist to have come from the Cuyps, having also benefited from the teachings of others from outside the family.
Aelbert Cuyp developed his style over time and did not display his mastery of light until later on in his career. He was therefore somewhat more conventional in the early years, choosing to work in a precise but slightly less ambitious manner. The scenes of ships and harbours would also not appear until later on, but these would become perhaps his best known contributions. Dutch art was highly successful across the 17th century and many different influences would have fallen upon him across his lifetime. Other locations which he might have visited would have their own artistic methods, a little similar to the Italian schools of several centuries earlier. It would be from around the 1650s that the artist had reached his peak, and during that decade he would produce many of his best known works, choosing to retire fairly soon afterwards in his mid-forties, taking on a number of administrative positions, and re-connecting with his faith.
The artist was born in Dordrecht in 1620 and is believed to have only travelled on rare occasions. He loved this region and continued to work here even as his artistic reputation started to grow. Cuyp was able to learn from other regions by working with local artists who had themselves travelled. For example, he knew several figures who had developed their talents in Italy, and so he would take some of these techniques into his own work, albeit from a second-hand experience. The Dutch generally were brave travellers who realised that much could be learnt from other parts of Europe and so such adventures for artists were not unheard of. Cuyp would also have come across artists from other parts of the Netherlands as well, and learnt much from them too. Ultimately, his own approach would be a combination of his tutors and also his home town of Dordrecht in which most of his life experiences would have occurred.
What were the three phases of his career?
Many historians have categorised the artist's work into three main periods. These all had clear stylistic differences and marked his evolution from a young man to the famous works that appeared in the last few years of his career. Up to the 1640s we see the strongest influence of Jan van Goyen within his work. He would master tone during the early years, but his majestic use of light would not appear until the next phase. Jan Both and his knowlege of Italian art would bring new ideas into the style of Cuyp, and this brought about a bolder and more ambitious use of lighting which brought many elements of his landscape scenes to life. He would then push onwards once more and begin to include figures in the foreground more often and then started to focus on the rivers of his hometown Dordrecht, and at that point many of his finest creations would be realised.
Was the artist an accomplished draughtsman?
Cuyp was a highly skilled sketcher who tended to work outdoors, before then using his drawings as a basis for paintings completed in his studio. Most of his drawings were completed in brown ink and relatively detailed, so that he would have plenty to work from at a later date. Landscape sketches could then be adapted and altered in oils, with some parts being re-used across different paintings. Cuyp based his landscapes on reality but did not allow himself to become to restricted by what he saw, and would often 'improve' upon how things looked in real life with his own innovations and tweaks. Inevitably, relatively few drawings would survive from his career because of the fragility of the paper used as well as how they were not looked after in quite the same way as his oil works would have been. There are, however, enough that have survived and been attributed to the artist that we can learn much from his sketching abilities.
Aelbert Cuyp's Most Famous Paintings
The Maas at Dordrecht is perhaps the artist's most famous painting, though there are many contenders. The piece features perhaps the most impressively composed seascape, with an abundance of ships dotted around this stunning scene. It perfectly captures the essence of the artist and is regularly mentioned when his name is brought up in discussion. It is also given prominence within the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., USA. Beyond that specific piece, you will find his oeuvre filled with many other views of the rivers around Dordrecht plus also a number of landscapes that feature a variety of animals such as cattle, dogs and horses. His work captured many elements of life within the Netherlands during the 17th century and provided an important contribution to the Dutch Golden Age, which itself was a highly influential period in the history of that nation.
Where can his work be found today?
Twelve of his paintings can be found in the National Gallery in London, UK, including the likes of A Herdsman with Five Cows by a River, The Maas at Dordrecht in a Storm and also Ubbergen Castle. There is also the Dordrechts Museum in the artist's original hometown. This venue has managed to acquire a number of Cuyp paintings which had originally been snapped up by private collectors in the 18th and 19th century. Horsemen resting in a landscape can be found here and the museum has also completed a number of research projects into this local figure who remains regarded as one of the finest Dutch landscape artists ever to have lived. The remaining items that are left over from his career can be found in other public collections in the Netherlands, UK and US. The dispersal of them in the 18th and 19th century would explain why they are today still so spread out across these countries, making it relatively easy to see at least one of his works in person.
Landscape Painters in the Dutch Golden Age
The overall period of the Dutch Golden Age would include many different aspects of society, with painting being one of the most memorable contributions to this important era. The artists were spread across a wide variety of different genres, including portraiture and genre painting. There were also less common contributions to the likes of still life, seascapes and landscapes. Dutch artists had already impressed within landscape art, and so it was no surprise to see the likes of Aelbert Cuyp then appear in the 17th century. He had very much his own unique techniques which were inspired by the lighting mastery of Claude Lorrain. Aside from his contributions, other important Dutch Golden Age landscape painters including the likes of Jacob van Ruisdael, Esaias van de Velde and Hendrick Avercamp. Jan van Goyen was also highly skilled and was actually one of Cuyp's own tutors.
When and where did the artist travel around the Netherlands?
We do know that the artist would have broadened his artistic education in around the year 1640 by visiting a number of other locations across the Netherlands. Many of the artists that he met during these trips had themselves studied abroad, and so many new artistic ideas would suddenly be presented to him. He would normally work in pen ink whilst out and about, before then referring to the same drawings once he had returned to his studio. Some of the locations that he took in during this time included the likes of Utrecht, The Hague, Amersfoort, Arnhem and Rhenen. The nation was rich in regional art at the time, meaning every town and city had something to contribute to the Dutch culture, with much variety found between these different places. After completing these journeys, the artist would work in Dordrecht for the rest of his career, retiring relatively early in his mid-forties.
Why did the artist retire so young?
Aelbert chose to stop painting completely whilst in his early forties and there is no evidence that this decision was influenced by any health issues. Instead, it is likely to have been due to his new marriage at around the same time, with Cuyp then taking on alternative roles in the running of the local council. It is extremely rare for any successful artist to give up their craft so young and financially he was also very secure, making this all the more unusual. He was, however, a deeply religious individual and so would have had other interests outside of the art world which he might have wanted to focus on in later life. He married Cornelia Boschman in 1658 and for the remainder of his life filled his time with various roles including the deacon of the Reformed Church, regent of a sickhouse in his native Dordrecht and also a member of the High Court of Holland. It may simply have been a lack of time which kept him away from his art in the 1660s and 1670s.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.