Text by Geoffrey Smith
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Aelbert Cuyp was born in Dordrecht and apart from a number of journeys up the Rhine, one of which took him into Germany, he seems to have been more than content to stay put. Cuyp’s parochial proclivities, producing pictures almost exclusively for local patrons meant that his art was almost unknown outside Dordrecht. After his marriage to a wealthy widow he became prominent in civic affairs — responsibilities that took up so much of his time that his artistic output dwindled to virtually nothing.
Despite this anonymity he was enthusiastically championed by British connoisseurs and artists (including Gainsborough) in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and he was called the ‘Dutch Claude’. As a result, there are more examples of his work in Britain than anywhere else.
This picture is one of twenty-five views of his home town painted by Cuyp. However, it is evident that the true subjects of the painting are the sky and the river. A ship stands off the port, forming a central fulcrum for the composition. To the right Cuyp portrays the Dutch waterworld of the Rhine delta. An unusual vignette occupies this lower quarter of the composition — loggers are engaged in guiding their floating cargo on the very last stage of their long journey from the German forests. Dordrecht was their terminus — the timber trade was a staple industry for the town.
To the left is the old town dependent on waterborne trade, but increasingly losing out to competition from Amsterdam and Rotterdam. The imposing tower of the Grote Kerk, the ‘signature’ edifice of the skyline is bathed in a golden evening light flooding in from the sun which is setting just outside the bounds of the picture. But the massive tower is dwarfed beneath the infinite sky to which Cuyp has devoted over three-quarters of the picture. A bank of cloud is suspended above the town, its westernmost edge touched by the fast departing rays of the sun. The glassy water is slightly disturbed by a very light breeze. It is the sort of evening which one might well remember for years — the sort of evening which might enter one’s personal lexicon of jewelled moments.
1655 Rembrandt: The Flayed Ox, Paris, Musée du Louvre
1656 Bartolomé Esteban Murillo: Vision of St Anthony of Padua, Seville Cathedral
1656 Diego Velázquez: Las Meninas; Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado