This scene with a little farmhouse sheltered by some trees, a canal with a small, moored boat and a cow drinking at the water’s edge would be a quintessentially Dutch landscape, were it not for the rocky escarpment behind the building and the hills in the distance. Rembrandt took familiar motifs, such as a langhuis and the canal, and placed them in a more picturesque landscape. He may have seen and sketched the building and the canal near Diemen, where this type of building is common (see Schneider, op. cit., p. 155; and Hinterding, op. cit., p. 448), while the mountainous scenery was probably inspired by Bruegel or Goltzius, who unlike Rembrandt had traveled south, or by the dramatic landscapes of Hercules Seghers. Although he was personally unfamiliar with such places, Rembrandt in this small etching achieved a surprising harmony and continuity between the Dutch foreground and the more exotic background.
The Landscape with the Cow exists in two life-time states, with only a tiny change between the two: in the second state, Rembrandt added a few lines of shading to the meadow just to the right of the cow. Of the first state, only ten impressions are known in public collections. With its rich burr on the boat and the reeds in the foreground, and the very pronounced and modulated plate tone in the sky, the present impression of the second state must be a very early printing, equal in quality to a first-state impression. The etching is dated to around 1650, and it was during this time that Rembrandt began to experiment increasingly with burr and plate tone. Fine, early impressions, such as the present one, were undoubtedly printed by the artist himself, which allowed him to manipulate the inking of the plate and to create ephemeral effects such as air, mist, clouds and deep, dank shadows, thereby lending this exquisite little landscape atmosphere and mystery, and making it come alive.
The provenance of this impression can be traced back to the eighteenth-century Dutch collector Herman de Kat and has subsequently been in the collections of some of the greatest connoisseurs of Rembrandt’s etchings of their time, including August Sträter, Werner Weisbach and Otto Schäfer. It has always been considered and described as an exceptionally fine example.