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Dutch masters confirm urbanite interest in farming - landscapes popular

Netherlands livestock breeds widely known

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

Today's Dutch farmers are inclined to dismiss as interference the interest of urbanites in farming, especially the demands for keeping livestock in the fields, to limit factory farming and to expand “nature preservation” initiatives. If the farmers think that the urbanite interest in farming is a fad, hoping it will pass, they may have a surprise coming. In fact, this interest has a long history.

Dutch urbanites, especially those with ample means, have held an interest in farming for a long time. Those wanting to know more about that history, only need to read up on the origin of Dutch polders: urbanite financiers. Museums around the world with Dutch landscape art in their collections, can confirm this interest too: artists had customers for this art which immortalized farmers and their livestock.

Last year, the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam Schiphol displayed nine 17th-century cattle pieces from the Rijksmuseum with immortalized Dutch cows: brown, black, spotted, lying down or standing up. The museum called the paintings symbols of prosperity, fertility and loyalty, and noted that dairy cows have dominated the Dutch landscape for centuries and, since the 16th century, they were featured prominently (to a certain extent) in Dutch paintings too.

Dairy cows may originally only have been of interest to farmers, but in the 16th century this typically Dutch phenomenon also captured the imagination of painters, turning dairy cows into favourite subjects in landscape art. Not just favourite subjects from an arts point of view, they no doubt, appealed to the senses of the well-to-do patrons who may well have owned a rural summer manor or a stake in a farm or even an entire polder.

Growing prominence

As grazers of the new land reclaimed from the sea, and as generators of income, farm animals embodied the growing wealth of the Golden Age. In earlier works such as those by Salomon van Ruysdael and Adriaen van de Velde, cows were primarily decorative in the landscape. Gradually, however, they gained prominence in paintings, often depicted in pastures or on riverbanks, and in scenes in cowsheds by Roelant Savery and Govert Dircksz Camphuysen.

As producers of meat and milk, cows were an important source of food. A lot of money could be made from cattle and already in the Golden Age the Dutch cattle breeding industry was the most significant one of its kind in Europe. City dwellers, perhaps migrants from rural areas, wanted images of these lowing beasts - 'the pride of the nation' - displayed in their own home and ordered paintings of farmhouses and actual portraits of cows by Aelbert Cuyp and Paulus Potter.

Thanks to painters and lithographers, and long before them the unkown illustrators in the caves of neighbouring countries, today's generations know also something of how animal farm life of centuries past looked. Authors will refer to certain animal features recorded on canvases that are different today. The cows were then smaller in height and the horns looked differently. Experts will also try to discern the breed of the animal.


It is generally agreed that the ancestor of today's cows is the Bos primigenius, last seen in Poland in 1627. Wild cattle lived in the forests of Europe, Asia and North Africa but disappeared over time as farming methods intensified. The colour of the cows was often reddish brown, that of the bulls, blackish brown. Their shoulder height was respecivily about 1.5 metres to 1.60-1.80 metres.

Dutch efforts at identifying breeds received a major boost when in 1874 het Nederlandsche Rundvee Stamboek (NRS, or Dutch Cattle Breed) was founded, followed in 1879 by het Friesche Rundvee-stamboek (Friesian Cattle Breed). Experts distinguish three mainlines: the red (roodbont, MRIJ), the black (Zwart-bont, the Friesians) and the whiteheads (blaarkoppen). In 1975, all three were considered utility breeds, supplying both meat and milk. Their total numbers were then 2.2 million animals, a number which now hoovers around 4 million.

It may be a surprise that the Netherlands has such a variety in cow breeds. However, some of the rare breeds were nearly wiped out during the large cull that followed the most recent outbreak of the foot and mouth disease in 2001. It taught volunteer groups who cherish approximately fifty different livestock breeds to be still more proactive in preserving these species. The Lakenvelders, the Groninger Blaarkoppen, the Witrikken and Brandrode are just part of these native Dutch varieties. Also included are horse breeds, of which the Friesian is the best known breed (the Groninger, the Gelderse and the Dutch work horse are the other three), sheep, goats, hogs, dogs and chicken species.

The National Day of Living Heritage (Nationale dag van het levend erfgoed) and the various breeders groups hope to gather at a Brabant estate in late August to attract attention to a very unique, living Dutch heritage; a heritage some will say was copied from the Dutch landscapes, and that has come alive again.