Animals

Holy Cow! Why Did The Dutch Painters Love Cows?

Magda Michalska 4 December 2017 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 think it’s a shallow and useless question…? Let me show you there is more substance to it….

A Prosperous Cow

Aelbert Cuyp, Herdsmen Tending Cattle, c.1655-60, Washington DC, National Gallery of Art , Dutch Painters Love Cows
Aelbert Cuyp, Herdsmen Tending Cattle, c.1655-60, Washington DC, National Gallery of Art

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

An Idyllic Cow

Nicholaes Berchem, Landscape with Italian Peasants (or Italian Landscape at Sunset), mid-17th-century, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Dutch Painters Love Cows
Nicholaes Berchem, Landscape with Italian Peasants (or Italian Landscape at Sunset), mid-17th-century, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Dutch lanscapists were inspired by ‘Italianate’ landscapes popularized by works of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. Many of them travelled to Italy and after they’d come back, 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 in fact a message about the economic stability of Holland.

Berchem, Nicolaes, Roman Fountain with Cattle and Figures (Le Midi), c.1645-46, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Dutch Painters Love Cows
Berchem, Nicolaes, Roman Fountain with Cattle and Figures (Le Midi), c.1645-46, Dulwich Picture Gallery

A Family Cow

Paulus Potter, The Bull, 1625-54, The Hague, Mauritshuis, Dutch Painters Love Cows
Paulus Potter, The Bull, 1625-54, The Hague, Mauritshuis

What a cute painting! 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 patriarchical nuclear family of the Dutch.

An Innocent Cow

Mark Tansey, The Innocent Eye Test, 1981, The Met, Dutch Painters Love Cows
Mark Tansey, The Innocent Eye Test, 1981, The Met

No, you’re not mistaken: this is a painting of a cow looking at a cow on another painting. Look closely, 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. By showing 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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