Aelbert Cuyp’s ‘Large Dort’: Colour Change and Conservation Marika Spring and Larry Keith
Aelbert Cuyp’s ‘Distant View of Dordrecht, with a Milkmaid and Four Cows, and Other Figures (The Large Dort)’ (plate 1) was probably painted in the late 1650s, and is his most monumental treatment of a subject he often depicted. The painting, which entered the National Gallery Collection in 1876, marks a turning point in his career after which he began to exploit the so-called Italianate lighting effects of contemporary artists such as Jan Both (note 1). The picture has suffered, however, from changes in its appearance that are typical of work by this artist, which result mainly from the alteration of unstable pigments such as yellow lake, the extensive use of which is highly characteristic of his technique (note 2). In the case of ‘The Large Dort’ its deterioration contributes to a blanched, chalky appearance which is particularly disturbing in certain areas of the green foreground landscape. Before the recent restoration, the painting also displayed the more usual changes brought about by the discoloration of the old varnishes and retouchings used in earlier conservation treatments.
The decision to restore the painting presented the opportunity to explore the picture’s technique in depth, and thereby to understand the differences between the visual effect of changes within the original painting materials and those resulting from the picture’s restoration history. While some works by the artist from the National Gallery and other collections have changed in ways very similar to ‘The Large Dort’, others have not altered nearly as much, and the available information suggests that this variation in condition may largely be explained by their differing histories of display, or by the specific pigment mixtures used by Cuyp in each work, rather than by their conservation treatments. The information gained from both technical and comparative research has also proved invaluable for the recent restoration, whereby a more precise understanding of the changes to the picture, combined with the examples provided by relatively unaltered paintings, have fundamentally informed the approach taken in its retouching.
Aelbert Cuyp was born in Dordrecht in 1620, and died there in 1691. His earliest biographer was Arnold Houbracken (also from Dordrecht), who gave an account of Cuyp’s life in ‘De groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen’ (1718–21). He came from a family of artists; both his father Jacob Gerritsz. and his uncle Benjamin were established painters in Dordrecht. Aelbert’s first training and activity must have been in his father’s workshop, while his first independent production seems to have been undertaken in the early 1640s. Beginning in a chromatically restrained style broadly related to the work of painters like Jan van Goyen, Cuyp gradually became more influenced by the Italianate landscape painters active in Utrecht, particularly artists such as Cornelius van Poelenburgh and Jan Both, who had returned there from Italy in 1642 (note 3).
Cuyp and the English market
Cuyp’s patrons were for the most part the prosperous merchants and landowners in and around Dordrecht itself, and the essentially local market for which he painted meant that his works remained concentrated in that area well into the eighteenth century (note 4). By 1785 Johan van Slingeland, a rich iron merchant in Dordrecht, owned 41 paintings attributed to Cuyp (note 5) – but when his estate was auctioned that year most of the pictures went to Britain, and by the late eighteenth century a particularly strong British interest in paintings by Cuyp had developed. Cuyp was, together with Rembrandt, one of the first Dutch artists collected in Britain in a significant way, and even came to be thought of as an essentially ‘English’ artist who was seen as a Dutch incarnation of another famously adopted ‘English’ painter, Claude – and was so described by John Boydell in 1769 (note 6). Writing about Cuyp in a volume of reproductive engravings of old master paintings that he compiled, Boydell writes proudly of England’s discovery – while chastising Cuyp’s unappreciative countrymen for their neglect:
That his merit should have been overlooked by his countrymen is not at all surprising. The boldness of his pencil, and the freedom of his touches were not calculated to please a people who have been accustomed to the exquisite finishings of the most laborious class of artists that the world has produced: but that pictures of such extraordinary merit should have so long escaped the attention of collectors of other nations… appears incredible… It is entirely owing to the taste of the British nation, that his pictures have been retrieved from obscurity, their value enhanced, and places allotted them in some of the first Collections in this Kingdom (note 7).
The earliest known date for the arrival of a painting by Cuyp in England is 1741; by the 1760s they were being acquired in larger numbers, and their fame (and value) was assured by the arrival in around 1760 of the ‘River Landscape with Horseman and Peasants’ (NG 6522, plate 2) – the very picture to inspire Boydell’s ‘Dutch Claude’ accolade. The painting was acquired by Captain William Baillie for the Marquess of Bute, and has been in the National Gallery since 1989 (note 8). Cuyp’s characteristic bucolic countryside scenes of arcadian shepherds with aristocratic hunting parties, typically bathed in a warm Italianate light, resonated as strongly with the English landowning gentry as they had with their Dordrecht counterparts a century earlier (note 9). Indeed, Cuyp himself appears to have identified strongly with this latter group: following his marriage to Cornelia Boschman (a woman from a wealthy landowning family) in 1658 he virtually gave up painting to focus his energies on the management of their estates (note 10).
Cuyp’s paintings were held in high esteem by British collectors throughout the nineteenth century. ‘The Large Dort’ is known to have been in Britain since at least 1823 and sits comfortably within the larger narrative of Cuyp’s popularity with English collectors. It was probably inherited as part of a larger estate by Sir Henry Hervey Bruce in 1823 from the 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry, and so presumably would have come into Britain some years before (note 11). In 1849 it was sold at Christie’s to Thomas Brown, in London, and in 1856 it was acquired by Wynn Ellis, who bequeathed the painting to the National Gallery in 1876 (note 12). The Gallery had already acquired five paintings by Cuyp by this time; two from the Angerstein collection in 1824, and then three more from Sir Robert Peel in 1871 (note 13).