Holy Cow! Why Did the Dutch Painters Love Cows?

Magda Michalska 11 March 2022 min Read

Every time I look at 17th century Dutch landscape paintings, I ask myself the same question: why do they always show cows? You will probably think this is a shallow and useless question, but let me show you there is more substance to it. Discover Dutch paintings with cows!

A Prosperous Cow

Aelbert Cuyp, Herdsmen Tending Cattle, c.1655-1660, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.

Dutch landscape painters’ interest in livestock, and the prominence given to cattle, reflect the Dutch pride in their milk industry. Eventually, the cow became a symbol of Holland and its prosperity. Any picture portraying cows not only reflected the 17th-century social and economic conditions but also expressed the nation’s patriotic feelings.

An Idyllic Cow

Nicolaes Berchem, Landscape with Italian Peasants (or Italian Landscape at Sunset), mid-17th-century, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.

Dutch landscapists were inspired by “Italianate” landscapes popularized by the works of Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin. Many of them traveled to Italy and after they returned they tried to recreate the unique quality of Italian light. However, despite the Italian theme, Berchem still included cows in his paintings which, coupled with the bucolic calm of nature, conveyed a message about the economic stability of Holland.

Nicolaes Berchem, Roman Fountain with Cattle and Figures (Le Midi), c. 1645-1646, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, UK.

A Family Cow

Paulus Potter, The Bull, 1625-1654, The Hague, Mauritshuis, Netherlands.

What a cute Dutch painting with cows! It comments on the harmonious relationship between humans and animals. Moreover, it carries a moralizing message in which the cow and the sheep families stand for the patriarchal nuclear family of the Dutch.

An Innocent Cow

Mark Tansey, The Innocent Eye Test, 1981, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

No, you’re not mistaken: this is a Dutch painting of a cow looking at a cow in another painting. Look closely, Mark Tansey references the painting by Paulus Potter we’ve just seen. What is this work about? Well, this time not so much about cows but about modern art. It depicts human experts expecting a reaction from a cow – will she recognize herself? Will she distinguish artifice from reality? Will she admire Monet’s Grainstack (Snow Effect), 1891, (on the wall to the right)? – Tansey offers a critique of representation in modern art used as a method to revitalize the tradition of painting. He refers to tradition by using grisaille, or grey monochrome, which was often applied in academic painting.



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