This serene and beautifully atmospheric painting is an exceptional example of the work of Aert van der Neer, who has come to be recognized as one of the greatest landscapists of his age. Van der Neer is most well known for his nocturnes and twilight river landscapes, which he brought to an unprecedented level of perfection during the middle of the seventeenth century. What sets the present painting apart is van der Neer’s depiction of the moment before twilight, as the sun sets behind the trees, infusing the atmosphere with an extraordinary unity of golds and blues. As Peter Sutton points out of van der Neer’s art:
"so exacting are the adjustments of hue and value that create this sense of an envelope of moist air that Stechow was tempted to compare the effort to differential calculus… The extraordinarily subtle use of layers and tints of colour creates a luminous atmosphere wedding earth and sky in an unprecedented nocturnal harmony. More than his Flemish predecessors, van der Neer reduced the local hues of objects to achieve a new coloristic unity.” (i)
The motif of the white horse silhouetted against the dusky background recall’s Rembrandt’s celebrated Polish Rider of c.1655 (Frick Collection, New York). Indeed the pose, modeling and chiaroscuro of the animal is so similar that it seems likely van der Neer knew of that painting by his famous fellow townsman. This thesis is also consistent with a dating of the present painting to c. 1655 – 60, a high point in van der Neer’s career which includes several of his most celebrated masterpieces.(ii)
Landscapes in vertical, rather then horizontal format are relatively unusual in van der Neer’s oeuvre, but a number exist of virtually identical dimensions to the present painting, notably A Landscape with a River at Evening preserved in the National Gallery, London (canvas, 65 x 79 cm).
BIOGRAPHY OF AERT VAN DER NEER
Aert van der Neer was probably born in Amsterdam in 1603 or 1604. According to biographer Arnold Houbraken, van der Neer spent his youth in Arkel near Gorinchem. Although nothing of his artistic training is known, he may have become a painter through the influence of the Camphuyzen brothers, Rafael (1597/8 - 1657) and Jochem (1601/2 - 1659). A landscape dated 1633 is signed by both van der Neer and Jochem Camphuyzen. Van der Neer moved with his family to Amsterdam in 1632, and by the mid 1640’s he had begun to specialize in winter scenes and moonlit river views.
Van der Neer constructed the majority of his compositions around a central body of water that, as in the present painting, often stretches the entire width of the foreground, giving the composition depth through its articulation of receding space. His skillful depiction of cumulus and cirrus clouds further enhance the spatial recession. His scenes are almost always seen from a raised vantage point and are largely imaginary.
In 1659 and again in 1662, van der Neer is documented as being a keeper of a tavern on the Kalverstraat, but in December of 1662 he declared bankruptcy.
Aert van der Neer is one of the most important landscape painters of the Dutch golden age. His principal achievements were in the capturing of an unprecedented realism in the atmospheric effects of twilight, dusk and moonlight.
Van der Neer's work is represented in many of the great museums of the world, including the Rijksmuseum, the Mauritshuis, the National Gallery (London), the Wallace Collection, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Hermitage Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, and the National Gallery (Washington).
(i) Peter Sutton et al, Masters of 17th Century Dutch Landscape Painting, 1987, p.40.
(ii) Van der Neer’s masterpiece, Winter Landscape in a Snowstorm, also dates from 1655-60. That painting was sold at Sotheby's London, July 9th 2008, lot 40, for £2.7million. See also Sutton (ibid), cat 61, plate 43, p.386 (illustrated).