Cuyp's cattle : aesthetic transformations in Dutch 17th-century art
This study investigates the depiction of cattle by the Dutch painter Aelbert Cuyp (1620-91). It seeks to identify possible reasons for his choices of subject-matter and to trace the implications- for subsequent taste. Origins of the Dutch 17th-century veestuk (cattle piece) can be found in artefacts and writings of many earlier cultures, in which cattle images served mythological, religious, instructional and other functions. The real and symbolic importance of Dutch cattle husbandry and dairy farming contributed further significance to this iconography, and in Cuyp's day the 'Dutch cow' was recognised as a patriotic emblem for the politically independent and economically successful United Provinces. Analysis of the colours and condition of contemporary cattle and of farming practices suggests there were evident differnces between the subjects as Cuyp depicted them and the actuality from which he derived his compositions. This prompts a reconsideration of claims, that 'realism' is the prime character of Cuyp's art. It is proposed that Cuyp adopted a deliberately selective and idealised vision, representing rural subjects in nostalgic terms. Aspects of the intricate interrelationship between observable actuality and pictorial invention are exposed by attending to the cultural imperatives that informed and were informed by the pictures. Cuyp's works not only exploited estab1ished associations to images of cattle but also carried moralising, pietistic and entertaining messages, similar to those found in still-life and genre subjects, whose meaning has become lost to modern observers. Cuyp seems to have worked entirely for a local clientele, and, since Dordrecht was not an agricultural centre, explanations of the appeal of his cattle images are sought in that community's prevailing patrician and burgerlijk attitudes and beliefs about rural subjects. It is argued that his paintings, rather than being regarded as neutrally descriptive reflections of local conditions, were valued both for their illusionistic naturalism and for their underlying meanings. Cuyp's posthumous reputation in Dordrecht and subsequent influence are examined in the light of these aesthetic transformations.