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.