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Essay – Benjamin Gerritsz Cuyp – Oriental writer cutting his pen

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Essay - Benjamin Gerritsz Cuyp - Oriental writer cutting his pen

Seated in a bare room, an old man with a long beard sharpens the end of his quill. He is dressed in oriental costume, with a long robe, turban and sandals. The pince-nez and large book on his lap – in which he is probably about to write – indicate that he is some kind of scholar. His surroundings are only summarily indicated: a table covered with an oriental carpet, a few pieces of paper scattered about, and a small artwork on the wall. The subject is difficult to discern, but appears to be a seated figure wearing a cape and a large wide-brimmed hat. The setting offers no further clues to the man’s identity and he can probably best be described as simply an ‘oriental writer’.1

At the upper left we find the signature of the artist, Benjamin Gerritsz Cuyp.2 He was a pupil of his stepbrother Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp and an uncle of the famous Aelbert Cuyp (cat. nos. 15 and 16). He became a member of the Guild of St Luke in Dordrecht in 1631, but also made a name for himself in The Hague and Utrecht. Despite his early death in 1652 – he had yet to reach the age of 40 – he left behind a fairly large oeuvre. Cuyp worked in a quick, loose style, employing an almost mono­chrome palette and concentrating on a limited number of endlessly varied subjects: tavern and battle scenes, seascapes and biblical stories – particularly the Annunciation and the Adoration of the shepherds. Because none of his works are dated it is almost impossible to chart his stylistic development.

Although nothing is known of a personal contact between Cuyp and Rembrandt, he undoubtedly knew the master’s work, as some of the details, the brownish tonality and the dramatic lighting in his pictures indicate. The Oriental writer cutting his pen, too, seems to have its roots in Rembrandt. The figure type, his dress and the bright shaft of light illuminating the dim room are clearly inspired by some of the pictures Rembrandt executed at the end of the 1620s in Leiden, such as St Paul in prison (Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart), Two old men debating (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) and Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).3 Cuyp seems to have been influenced by Rembrandt in terms of technique as well. This is demonstrated by his effective use of the brown underlayer, which plays a role in many areas of the picture, for example in the scholar’s sleeve, where just a few touches of black, yellow and blue have been applied over the ground in order to bring the material to life. Given the fact that there are few paintings that so clearly demonstrate a connection between Cuyp’s work and that of his great role model, Rembrandt, the panel, which until now has been virtually ignored in the literature, thus plays a not unimportant role in our conception of the artist.4

In the nineteenth century, Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam owned a painting very like the Oriental writer cutting his pen. In it, an old man with a beard, eyeglasses and a turban is shown reading a book.5 The picture was destroyed in a fire in 1864 and is now known only from a photograph of a drawn copy (fig. 1).6 It was unsigned, but had been attributed to the Delft painter Leonaert Bramer. Unaware of the signature, some authors have also attributed our Oriental writer cutting his pen to this artist as well.7 The light effects are indeed reminiscent of Bramer, but his work is far more sketchy and the light and dark contrasts even stronger (see cat. no. 9). There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the signature, with the attendant result that the Rotter­dam picture, too, must now be ‘posthumously’ attributed to Cuyp.