- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 6, 2001

The National Gallery of Art has created a veritable galaxy of exhibitions from the Netherlands' golden age of painting in recent years. The gallery began with the popular Frans Hals show in 1989. Others came in quick succession: "Johannes Vermeer" in 1995-96, "Jan Steen: Painter and Storyteller" in 1996 and "Gerard Dou (1613-75): Master Painter in the Age of Rembrandt" last year. The museum's plans include a small exhibit of Rembrandt's late paintings of evangelists and Apostles.

Aelbert Cuyp (1620-91) is the newest artist in the National Gallery's series. "Aelbert Cuyp," the fine display of 45 paintings and 45 drawings, opens tomorrow. (Cuyp is pronounced "cowp")

The Dutch golden-age painters lived in what could be called "the age of light," which had its roots in the art of Italian painter Caravaggio (1573-1610). They gave metaphoric connotations to light. Imaging of light in fresh ways expressed the period's expansionism on all fronts. The age of scientists Galileo, Johannes Kepler and Sir Isaac Newton explored new continents and the universe.

Art historians prize Cuyp for his almost magical use of light in his landscapes. Few artists since, with the exception of the English painter J.M.W. Turner, have painted atmospheric images the way the Cuyp did. The exhibit also shows the artist as a less-talented painter of mythological and biblical scenes and, sometimes, portraits.

Perhaps inadvertently, the gallery shows him as the most Italianate of the golden-age artists by emphasizing his classical and religious paintings.

Cuyp traveled widely in the Netherlands in the 1640s, especially to the cosmopolitan city of Utrecht, where his father had trained as a painter. Exhibit curator Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., National Gallery curator of northern baroque painting, speculates that Cuyp may have met the artist Jan Both in Utrecht. That artist, who painted large-scale Italianate landscapes, had worked in Italy and suffused his works with the southern land's golden, luminous light. Cuyp, just beginning his artistic career, was impressed with the older painter and bent Both's artistic vocabulary to his new interpretations of the Dutch landscape.

Cuyp aimed to show the serene harmony between man and nature the ideal of the time and succeeded. "He's one of two great Dutch painters of landscape in the 17th century," Mr. Wheelock says.

The Dutch had declared their independence from Spain in 1581, but Spain did not recognize it until 1648. A temporary peace took hold from 1609 until 1621.

In July 1646, the Dutch gathered the fleet on the Maas River in the artist's native Dordrecht the oldest city in the Netherlands as a show of muscle during peace negotiations.

Cuyp's "The Maas at Dordrecht" (early 1650s) is an enormously exciting painting both in scope and detail. Hundreds of ships jammed with people crowd the river. A ship fires a salute while a drummer on the ship signals the coming of several Dordrecht dignitaries with his beats. A bugler in a second rowboat also announces the visitors.

"In all likelihood the officials who are approaching the 'pleyt' are coming to bid farewell just before the fleet's departure," Mr. Wheelock writes in the handsome catalog.

The hallmarks of Cuyp's remarkable landscape style are already visible. He thrust the multitude of sun-filled sails diagonally into the low horizon at the rear center of the painting. The water shimmers as if from reflected glass.

Cuyp achieved magnificent light effects in painting the rays of the early morning sun as they glanced across the city and sails of the ships. The same light hits the puffy clouds in the painting, giving them a dramatic whitish-dark cast.

The painter expressed what the Dutch considered their golden age in charismatic ship views such as in "The Maas."

A prosperous agricultural society, the Netherlands also prized its crops and the land. Cows yielded both milk and meat, and the artist painted them extensively. "A cow was not just a cow for Cuyp, it was a symbol of peace," Mr. Wheelock says with a laugh.

Cuyp celebrated country life and the spiritual sustenance thought to be found in nature. He collaborated with his father, Jacob, a noted portraitist, on "Portrait of a Family in a Landscape" (1641) in the exhibit's first gallery.

Jacob painted the figures, Aelbert the landscapes. A rather stiffly painted Dutch family gathers to welcome the eldest son and his spoils from a hunt. Food, and its necessity for the family's well-being, pervades the very large work. The game bird from the hunt, fruit, chickens and the cows in the distance are evidence of the family's good fortune.

Aelbert's landscape in the family portrait demonstrates his early strong modeling and thick, yellowish brushwork. Visitors can also view Cuyp's unevenness with figures and genre scenes in "Orpheus Charming the Animals" (circa 1640).

The ambitious large-scale painting shows the mythological hero Orpheus singing and playing to the animals outdoors. Cuyp painted a great variety of animals, even the jaguars that he probably never saw. A disparity of scale exists between Orpheus, the animals especially the camel to the right in the painting and the jaguars in the foreground. It's also a prime example of Cuyp's painting of man's harmony with nature.

Cuyp's grandfather, Gerrit, was a glass painter, and his father was Dordrecht's most successful portraitist. Aelbert first trained with Jacob in the 1630s and painted small tonal landscapes of ochres and green-browns. Although Cuyp traveled extensively in the Netherlands and along the Rhine in Germany, he never went to Italy. It's curious, therefore, that his work seems so Italianate.

Like Vermeer in Delft, Cuyp painted only in his hometown for a Protestant following of rich merchants, landowners and city officials. Several upwardly mobile clients wanted pictures of the hunt, and the wealthy Pompe van Meerdervoort family commissioned a large equestrian portrait.

Cuyp obviously had difficulty with these subjects in works such as "Michiel and Cornelis Pompe van Meerdervoort With Their Tutor" (circa 1652), which comes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Cuyp appears to have placed the four figures on horseback in a castle stage set. The horsemen do not connect with one another. What's more, the riders seem ludicrously oversized for their horses.

He was more successful with a biblical subject dear to the hearts of Dordrecht's Calvinists, "The Baptism of the Eunuch" (circa 1653). It illustrates adult baptism. The story appeals to Calvinists because they advocated baptism only after someone committed to Christian beliefs.

The exhibit includes an exceptional number of Cuyp's best drawings. The artist sketched atmospheric panoramic views during his many travels and also in the studio.

Cuyp is not exactly a household name. The National Gallery in Washington, however, owns five fine works by Cuyp. The National Gallery in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the cooperating museums, own exceptional examples by the artist, as well.(The show travels to London on Feb. 13, 2002 and to Amsterdam on June 7.)

The exhibit is thorough in scope but raises more questions than it answers.

How important was Cuyp's early experience with Utrecht's many artists, especially Both? Did Cuyp pick up German influences while traveling there? Why was his output so uneven, especially in painting figures? How did Cuyp develop into the Netherlands' primary landscape genius who captured the Dutch land and sea as no other painter?

The scholarly, handsome catalog is a steal at $35 for the soft-cover edition and $65 for the hardcover volume.

But the publisher, Thames & Hudson, should add an index.


WHAT: "Aelbert Cuyp"

WHERE: West Building, National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue at Fourth Street NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, tomorrow through Jan. 13, 2002

TICKETS: Free

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