In the years after 1640, Cuyp developed a tonal approach to landscape under the influence of Jan van Goyen. Within a decade, however, his style had changed fundamentally and his interest turned towards larger-scale landscapes in the Italianate manner, undoubtedly inspired by the Bamboccesque Utrecht painters such as Herman Saftleven, and especially Jan Both. Cuyp made frequent visits to Utrecht, where his father Jacob had trained as an artist, and must have encountered Both after his return from Italy in 1641. Certainly by the mid-1640s Cuyp had begun to depart from van Goyen's range of monochromatic ochres and browns to use a much more colourful palette in his depiction of the glow of morning or evening light. The present panoramic view follows Both’s contre-jour approach to composition, which he had developed in the company of Claude Lorrain. With the direction of the light positioned at the back of the picture on a diagonal, the subjects are placed large in the foreground, as if facing the sun, their elongated shadows intensifying the sense of depth and luminosity.
This imaginary scene exemplifies the visual vocabulary that Cuyp developed in the mid- to late-1640s, which he would continue to use throughout his career. The way the landscape is bathed in light, with a relatively low viewpoint, creates an atmosphere of both quiet tranquility and vast grandeur. The structure of the landscape, with a flat plain punctuated by distant isolated hills, is comparable with a painting of similar date in Dulwich College Picture Gallery, London, described by William Hazlitt as 'woven of ethereal hues.'2 Such paintings would appear to epitomise the contemporary ideals of the Dutch Golden Age, which not only represented a period of economic prosperity but a belief in an idyllic era in which man lived in harmony with nature. Contemporary Dutch literature frequently described nymphs and shepherds inhabiting a kind of Dutch arcadia.3 Reflecting this idealised vision of rural life, the shepherds here are pictured almost as rulers over the landscape, surveying their terrain. This delicate balance of figures and landscape would be perpetuated and developed by later Italianate painters such as Nicolaes Berchem, Karel Dujardin and Adam Pijnacker.
The quiet grandeur of Cuyp’s paintings found particular resonance with the English aristocracy of the later eighteenth century. Indeed, the enthusiasm for his landscapes in England and France was so great that by 1800, no significant work by the artist seems to have been left in the Netherlands. How and when this picture entered the collection of the Cowper family, however, is a mystery.
The core of paintings was amassed by George Nassau Clavering-Cowper, 3rd Earl Cowper (1738–89), son of William Clavering-Cowper, 2nd Earl Cowper (1709–64) and Lady Henrietta de Nassau d’Auverquerque (1712–47), daughter of Henry de Nassau, Lord d'Auverquerque, 1st Earl of Grantham (1673–1754). Living in Florence for the last thirty years of his life, the 3rd Earl (formerly Viscount Fordwich) collected mostly Italian pictures under the guidance of Johann Zoffany, including two works by Raphael now known as the Small Cowper Madonna and the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna.4 His uncle, however, the 1st Earl of Grantham, was born in The Hague and, significantly, is known to have collected Dutch paintings. On his uncle's death, the 3rd Earl Cowper became his heir general. An inventory, dated 1761, of 'Good Belonging to the Hon.ble Lord Fordwich Brought from the Late Earl of Granthams in Albemarle Street [sic.]' lists, amongst other property, '77 Pictures of Various sizes.'5 How this group of pictures was dealt with and at what stage they actually reached Panshanger remains as yet unknown, but in the absence of any other evidence it seems possible that the present work may have entered the collection via this route. The painting latterly passed to 'Ettie' Desborough, one of the great Edwardian society hostesses, who famously entertained the elite aristocratic group known as 'the Souls', as well as the likes of Oscar Wilde, Vita Sackville-West, H.G. Wells and Edward VII, when Prince of Wales.
1. Reiss (see under Literature) suggests that the present picture is synonymous with that offered in the Spex sale. Although the description and dimensions are close, that picture is listed as on canvas: 'Twee praatende Harders, een belaade Ezel vast houdende, en voorts eenige Schaapjes, in een plaisant Landschap, door 'Denzelven'; op Doek, hoog 22 en een half, breet 28 en een halve duim [58.7 by 74.4 cm.].' See Chong (under Literature).
2. W. Hazlitt, Essays on the Fine Arts, London 1873, p. 388; see Reiss (under Literature), p. 77, cat. no. 44, reproduced.
3. The most famous of these are perhaps Johann van Heemskerk’s Batavische Arcadia, 1647, or Lambert Van den Bos’ Dordrechtsche Arcadia, 1662.
4. Washington, National Gallery of Art, inv. nos 1942.9.57 and 1937.1.25, respectively.
5. Hertfordshire Record Office, D/EP/F289.
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