As might be expected of a work that is close in style to the teenaged Aelbert Cuyp, and also to that of his father and teacher, Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp (1594–1651/52), this painting has elicited differing opinions. Schmidt-Degener and Valentiner (verbal opinions, 1935) accepted the picture as by the young Aelbert Cuyp. Gerson (1960s?; see Liedtke 2007) was uncertain, and wondered whether J. G. Cuyp might have painted the work. Blankert believed that the younger Cuyp was probably responsible, based on firsthand examination of the picture in 2003. Chong, however, in his dissertation on Cuyp (1992), thought that another, anonymous pupil of J. G. Cuyp might be the artist. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that such a disciple of the elder Cuyp, working in a manner very close to the young Aelbert's, is a hypothetical figure. Furthermore, the inconspicuous signature on the panel appears to be genuine.
The painting is rather hard to judge from reproductions, where the landscape, the cow, and indeed all the forms look flatter than they do in the work itself. Thinning of the paint layers and the visible wood grain contribute to this effect. Originally the landscape must have receded convincingly from the vegetation in the left foreground, which is sketched with some skill. The trees and bushes in the right background appear consistent with similar passages in the young Aelbert's work. The body of the cow is thin and in the lower half worn; the head suggests that some modeling and textures have been lost. Of course, one rarely encounters a smiling cow in nature, but happy cows (and sheep) are not uncommon in works by Jacob Gerritsz and by Aelbert Cuyp from the 1630s, for example, the Shepherd and Shepherdess in a Landscape
, which they painted together in about 1639-40 (Musée Ingres, Montauban). The same dog and very similar sheep are found in paintings by both the young Aelbert Cuyp, including The Met's own Piping Shepherds
), and his father.
The girl in The Met's picture, including her costume and hat, is (with the exception of the hands) quite well painted, with attractive highlights in the skirt, and sufficient modeling. The male figures are also successful, though worn. The three shepherd crooks are finely rendered and, like the straw hat, require explanation if the painting is dismissed as a minor pupil's work. However modest, the picture might be employed to illustrate two basic principles of connoisseurship: that a work must be seen in the original; and that its strongest passages, as well as its weaknesses, must be explained. Accordingly, Liedtke (2007) feels that the picture may be ascribed to Aelbert Cuyp in the second half of the 1630s, with the understanding that this is a tentative attribution, and that our knowledge of the artist's earliest efforts is limited.
The faces of the figures have a family resemblance but are not standard types. The Cuyps painted a good number of portraits of actual children in pastoral settings. Lambs are commonly included as symbols of innocence, and several pictures by Jacob Gerritsz show a girl feeding flowers to one of her fleecy companions.A dog, cows (usually in the background), and shepherd crooks suggest responsibility, or good upbringing, a virtue that reflects upon the parents who commissioned the portrait. In a broad view, the pastoral theme suggests an ideal age of innocence, when humankind had not yet been exposed to misfortune and selfish desires, and animals lived in harmony with people (as these domesticated animals clearly do).
[2017; adapted from Liedtke 2007]