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Essay – Nicolaes Berchem – Italianate Landscape with a Ruin

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Essay - Nicolaes Berchem - Italianate Landscape with a Ruin

From a high river bank in the right foreground, a herdsman seated on a donkey drives a herd of cattle downstream towards a ford. He is addressed by a young herdsman, who has slung a grey blanket over his shoulders to ward off the chilly air of the approaching dusk. Accompanying the older man is a woman wearing a red jacket, also riding a donkey. The river meanders through the landscape from the right background, disappearing beneath the arch of a ramshackle stone bridge in the left foreground. Low on the opposite bank, directly in front of the bridge, stands a wooden shed. On top of the bank, towards the middle ground of the image, is a stone building, probably in use as a farmhouse. Rising immediately behind it is a large circular stone structure, sharply silhouetted against the sky, in an obvious state of decay. Some of the pieces that have broken off from the ruin are overgrown with wild greenery. A hilly landscape stretches out, creating a broad background vista. The landscape basks in the warm evening sunlight; the approaching sunset has coloured the sky golden yellow.

The kind of landscape that Nicolaes Berchem has depicted here will be found in Italy rather than in the Netherlands. A number of seventeenth-century Dutch artists from the previous generation had journeyed to Italy, and their images of the Campagna and the picturesque Roman ruins and the Tivoli Gardens to the south of Rome had been received with great enthusiasm. They also produced drawings and paintings of the remains of old buildings from Roman antiquity, such as the Tomb of the Plautii and the Ponte Lucano, and that of Cecilia Metella on Via Appia, the Ponte Rotto and the Ponte Molle over the River Tiber, all of which motifs they used to give their landscapes a scenic Italian atmosphere. It has been established that Berchem himself probably never visited Italy, but that he used the work of other artists who had worked there as a source of inspiration.1 His work initially displayed the clear influence of Pieter van Laer (1599-c.1642), who returned to Haarlem in 1639 after a long stay in Rome. After 1650, however, Berchem’s work entered a new phase. His landscapes acquired a more open and expansive quality, and were no longer bounded by trees. In this stage he drew inspiration from the work of two painters who had been active in Italy, Jan Both (c.1618/21-1652) and Jan Asselijn (1610-1652). Berchem borrowed the golden afternoon light, in particular, from these artists’ Italian landscapes, such as Asselijn’s Landscape with herd at a ford, dating from c.1650, which is now in Vienna, and Both’s Travellers Resting at the Edge of a Wood.2

The motifs in the landscape by Berchem under discussion here derive from works by Jan Both and Jan Asselijn. The bridge and the ruin of the circular structure with its annexes are clearly based on images of the Ponte Lucano with the remains of the Tomb of the Plautii, which was built by the Romans near Tivoli, around AD 10-14. Unfamiliar with the topographical conditions, Berchem took certain artistic liberties, giving the Ponte Lucano more arches, depicting the Tomb of the Plautii to the left of the bridge, and setting the structures differently within the landscape. Jan Both also took artistic liberties of this kind, for instance in his Italian Landscape with the Ponte Lucano, in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (fig. 1).3 Berchem’s work was not unusual in this respect and indeed chimed with that of his contemporaries. Images of the Ponte Lucano in an Italian landscape were evidently much in demand. Both produced several variations of this motif. Berchem was quick to respond to trends; he automatically took up the subject and appropriated it in his own way.

Also in evidence is the way in which Jan Both’s work offered Berchem a new stylistic departure. Berchem abandoned the Haarlem tradition of Cornelis Vroom and the young Jacob van Ruisdael, depicting trees and plants more delicately, in thinner paint. Berchem has an inimitable ability to translate the representation of the golden light into paint. In his compositions he displays far more variety and audacity than Both, who frequently repeated himself, adopting the same stage-set composition from one landscape to the next. Berchem was also an outstanding painter of cattle, besides which his human figures are painted more loosely and display great quality and variety in movement and expression. In this respect too he surpassed Asselijn and Both, whose figures are frequently doll-like, stiff, and lacking in expression. So it is not surprising that after these two artists died in 1652, Berchem had a clear field; he was able to continue the fashion they had introduced, and his fortunes soared. His father-in-law, Jan Wils, was an art dealer, and through him Berchem’s work found its way to diverse collectors and art lovers, not only in Haarlem, but also in Amsterdam and other cities in Holland. Berchem was soon wealthy enough to buy a fine house on Koningstraat and a garden with a gaming house outside the gate known as Kleine Houtpoort, an unprecedented luxury for an artist in his day. He would continue to enjoy this success for the rest of his life, precisely because his artistic talents were so multi-faceted, rather than being confined to a single genre. Among the works he painted later, after settling in Amsterdam, were some magnificent harbour scenes, in which his refined compositions, exotic details, and richness of colour greatly outshone his example, Jan Baptist Weenix. He could also paint large figurative pieces such as Diana and Callisto, and scenes from other mythological tales. His Allegory of the Expansion of the City of Amsterdam, teeming with gods and allegorical personifications, may be seen as his most astonishing feat in the genre of figurative scenes.4

In the painting discussed here, it is clear that Berchem has found his personal form. With great feeling for atmospheric effects, he has composed a superb hilly river landscape, with Italian accents including the ruin and the tumbledown bridge recalling the Roman glory of a bygone era. The herdsmen and cattle move through this arcadian setting in their own lives of humble simplicity. Who would not yearn, however briefly, to wander in that paradise?