Oil painting on canvas, A Landscape with Peasants (Landscape with Herdsmen fording a River) by Jan Asselyn (Dieppe c.1610 – Amsterdam 1652), signed, bottom centre: JA (in ligature), circa 1635/44. An italianate landscape with a man mounted on a donkey conversing with a peasant girl on right ground in front; the girl holds a distaff and minds two cows and some sheep; on the left are rocks; to the right a valley with herdsmen and animals fording a stream.
Asselijn was, with Jan Both and Thomas Wijk, one of the second generation of specifically Dutch artists in Italy, and a pioneer of the idealised Italianate Dutch landscape. Despite the shortness of his career, he had a formative influence on such later practitioners of this genre as Claes Berchem, Aelbert Cuyp, Willem Schellinks (?1627-1678) - who also made a topographical tour of England - Carel du Jardin (1622-1678), and Adam Pijnacker (1621-1673), (i) of the four large landscapes by whom once at Attingham [NT] there is only one survivor there now. In addition to introducing an idealised version of the sunlit landscape of the South to Dutch painting, another of Asselijn's innovations was, as here, to open that landscape up, without conventional framing devices on either side.
Although the present picture was at one point attributed to the Haarlem painter, Willem Romeyn (c.1624-c.1694) (ii), apparently in ignorance of the signature, that attribution has subsequently been corrected back to Asselijn, and there seems little doubt that the latter ascription is the right one. Romeyn was essentially a petit-maître, primarily interested in flocks and cattle - which is probably what led to the misattribution of the present picture - rarely lifting his head from their horizon to take a wider view of the kind of sweep of sky and distant landscape seen here (one of the few pictures of his to do so is the Landscape with Cattle auctioned at Lempertz, Cologne, 21 May 1970, lot 150)(iii). His touch is more tentative and pettifogging than here, and his figures more timid.
The figures in the present picture are one of the strongest indices of Asselijn's authorship. The woman with her spindle, in particular, belongs to that phase of Asselijn's work in which he included boldly lit, comparatively prominent figures, painted in a way that recalls those of J.B. Weenix (1621-1663), with whom he actually collaborated on a picture now in the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna (the Naval Harbour, Inv.No. 761). The motif of herds strung out crossing a river winding through a rocky landscape is also one for which Asselijn seems to have had a particular fondness: cf. the paintings in the Louvre (Inv.No. 985) , in the Musées Royaux in Brussels (iv) , and in the Steengracht sale at Petit, Paris, 9 June 1913, lot 1; and the drawing in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge . The one element that is lacking in this picture - save in the far distance (but whose form is very similar to that of the ruin in the distance of the Brussels picture) is some fragment of an - often strikingly arched or vaulted - Antique ruin such as Asselijn was particularly partial to using, to give more character to his settings. These reflect the drawings of such ruins that he had made in Italy c.1640-c.1644, three series of which were engraved by G. Perelle when he was in Paris, c.1646/47.
The vivid lighting, and the strong muscular forms of the cattle, in the present painting also find their parallels in Asselijn's works, notably in the Landscape with herdsmen driving cattle and sheep towards ruins in the Vienna Academy ; the Bullock with its feet in the water and herd-boy in the Staatliche Gemäldegalerie in Dresden , in which the bullock strongly resembles the left-hand one in the present picture, but for its head being turned to the spectator; and the Herdsman with bullock and dog amongst the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter Stator, also in Dresden, in which the cow appears to be painted from the same drawing as in the present picture, but with a more upraised head.
There is a second painting by Asselijn at Ascott, a Cavalry Skirmish amongst trees and rocks , which is very close in character to Asselijn's last-known treatment of this subject with which he began his career before going to Italy, in the Statens Museum in Copenhagen . It is an indication of Asselijn's great receptivity as an artist that, in the space of his short career, he could progress from such formulaic battle-pieces, through idealised evocations of Italian landscape and ruins, to topographical reportage of the kind embodied in his Breach of the St. Anthony Dike in 1651 (Staatliches Museum, Schwerin) and Reconstruction of the St. Anthony Dike in 1652 (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin) . None of his fellow Italianate Dutch artists who had actually made the journey to Italy was capable of thus turning his eye and hand to recording his native country.
This picture is not mentioned by Waagen, probably because it was only acquired by Baron Lionel de Rothschild some time after Waagen's visit to England in 1851, but just possibly because it was kept at Gunnersbury, which Waagen did not visit.
Lit: The Ascott Collection, The National Trust, 1963, No.25, p.16 (entry by F.St. John Gore); revised edn. 1974; reprinted 1980.
(i) The picture was correctly ascribed to Asselijn in the lists of Baron Lionel de Rothschild's paintings, but was described as by Romeyn by the time of its transfer to the National Trust. The mistake was corrected in the first edition of St. John Gore's catalogue of The Ascott Collection in 1963, but the Courtauld photograph has always been filed in the Romeyn box, which may account for the picture's apparently being unknown to, and thus omitted from, Anne Charlotte Steland-Stief, Jan Asselijn, nach 1610 bis 1652, Amsterdam, 1971, whose foreword (p.6) reveals it actually to have been completed in 1963.
(ii) Steland-Stief, 1971 cat. 186, pp.77 & 155, dated to c.1649; do., 'Zum zeichnerischen Werk des Jan Asselijn: Neue Funde und Forschungsperspektiven', Oud Holland, xciv, 1980, no.94, pp.213-58, no.12. Peter Sutton notes that: "the motif of the cattle train fording a river was one of Asselijn's favourites" in his Introduction to exh. cat. Masters of 17th Century Dutch Landscape Painting, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, &c., 1987, p.43.
(iii) Steland-Stief, cat.124, pp.74, 143 & pl. XLVII, dated to 1647.
(iv) Steland-Stief, cat.111, pp.73, 141, & pl. XLVI, dated to 1646/47.
(v) Oud Holland, 1980, no.94, no.52.
(vi) Steland-Stief, cat.101, pp.74-5, 139 & pl. XLVIII, dated to c.1648.
(vii) Steland-Stief, cat. 138, pp.93-4, 146 & pl. LXV; exh. cat. Masters of 17th Century Dutch Landscape Painting, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, &c., 1987, no.2, dated to c.1649.
(viii) Steland-Stief, cat. 53, pp.89-90, 131-132 & pl. LXI, dated to c.1650, and noting the influence of J.B. Weenix on the setting. A good copy is in the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum Brunswick, variously attributed to Weenix himself, to Frederick Moucheron, or to Willem Schellinks (cf. Rüdiger Klessmann, Die holländischen Gemälde, Herzon Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig, 1983, p.16, no.366).
(ix) F.St. John Gore, The Ascott Collection, The National Trust, 1963, p.26, no.45, as: 'Attributed to Jan Asselyn'.
(x) Steland-Stief, cat. 15, pp.94, 125 & pl. LXVI, dated after 1646.
(xi) cf. exh. cat. Masters of the 17th Century Dutch Landscape Painting, no.4.
(xii) I am most grateful to Michael Hall for this information, which comes from a list of Baron Lionel's pictures drawn up not long before his death, in the archives of N.M. Rothschild & Sons Ltd.
Baron Lionel de Rothschild (1808-1879), recorded as in the Billiary Room at Gunnersbury in 1878/79; Leopold de Rothschild (1845-1917), Ascott; Anthony de Rothschild (1887-1961), Ascott; by whom given with the house, grounds, and most of the contents of the showrooms, in 1949
Makers and roles
Jan Asselyn (Dieppe c.1610 – Amsterdam 1652), artist
In Trust for the Nation, National Gallery, London, 1995 - 1996, no.39
Ascott, Buckinghamshire, Scala, 2008 by John Martin Robinson and others [pictures entries by Karin Wolfe on basis of Gore entries, 1963 with contributions from Alastair Laing] , no. 48