Artists in the city of Chicago recently discovered the cow. Actually, rediscovered might be a better term. With the city's history as the meatpacking centre of the Midwest, it's a natural affiliation. Their sculptural versions have been the talk of the town. Even some of my friends have been involved in this project. Although I've never sculpted one, I have painted a few over the years. I, myself, prefer close-up portraits. There seems to be a certain earnest quality (for lack of a better term) in those warm, almost loving faces. I suppose they'll never make household pets, but I'm sure quite a number of 4-H members have fallen in love with their barnyard pet projects in the past. In the mid-1600s, a Dutch artist seems to have had a love affair with those of the bovine set; and I dare say no one ever painted more of them or painted them better. His name was Aelbert Cuyp. (Pronounced KIPE.)
Cuyp never started out to paint cows. He did come from a long line of Dutch painters in and around Dordrecht, Holland, though. His grandfather was a glass painter. His father, Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp, was a portrait painter, especially talented with children, though his landscapes seemed to have been highly prized as well. He taught his son to paint, often allowing the boy to fill in landscape backgrounds as part of his portraits. In addition, Aelbert's uncle (his father's half-brother), Benjamin Gerritsz Cuyp, was quite adept at biblical and genre scenes imitating Rembrandt's use of light and shadow. But Aelbert himself took after several Utrecht painters, including Salomon van Ruisdael, Jan Both, van Goyen, and Saftleven. Jan Both in particular studied in Italy and brought back to Holland the influence of Claude Lorrain. And as much as he might have been the chief public relations force behind the Dutch dairy industry, Cuyp was just as interested in the watery landscapes and clouded, morning or evening light that illuminated them as he was his barnyard friends. He instilled much of the romantic quality of Lorrain's Italian landscapes into their Dutch counterparts, then added cows.
The cows are always quite dignified, often more so than their human tenders, who often seem to be mere decorations of afterthoughts in his compositions. They are fascinating foregrounds for Cuyp's deep, luminous, airy studies of light, weather, water, and dimly perceived Dutch towns on distant horizons. Some have called Cuyp the rural counterpart to Jan Vermeer. For a man who never travelled more than a hundred miles from his birthplace, there is a very cosmopolitan quality to his painting style that has made his work highly prized, not in the Netherlands, but in England where he was an influence upon English painters such as John Constable and J. M. W. Turner. After the death of his father and brother, Cuyp's work took on a grander scale and began to include portraits as well as landscapes. But in 1659, in a strange twist not unlike what often happened with female artists, he married Cornelia Bosman, a wealthy widow. And from that time on, lacking the financial need to paint, he appears to have devoted himself exclusively to the work of the Dutch Reform church. Cuyp had a small group of followers who continued his style after his death in 1691, but unfortunately, none of them ever painted any more cows.