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Dutch painter, draughtsman and etcher, son of Pieter Claesz, Nicholaes Berchem was one of the most talented, versatile and well-paid artists of his time. A prolific member of the second generation of Dutch Italianates, Berchem also produced scenes of his native landscape, winter landscapes, night scenes, hunts, battles, imaginary Mediterranean harbours, complex allegories, as well as history paintings. According to Hofstede de Groot, his oeuvre amounts to c.857 paintings, and while this estimate is inflated by numerous mis-attributions, Berchem was undoubtedly a prolific artist. He also made more than 300 drawings and around 50 etchings, mostly of animal subjects. In addition, he painted the staffage in the works of such artists as Jacob van Ruisdael (e.g. the Great Oak, 1652; Birmingham, Museum & Art Gallery), Meindert Hobbema, Willem Schellinks, Allaert van Everdingen and Jan Hackaert. Furthermore, Berchem collaborated with Gerrit Dou, Jan Wils (c. 1610–66) and Jan Baptist Weenix the elder.
Berchem’s first teacher was his father who, according to the records of the Haarlem Guild of St Luke, instructed his son in drawing in 1634. Houbraken claimed that Berchem studied with Jan van Goyen, Claes Moeyaert, Pieter de Grebber, Jan Wils and Jan Baptist Weenix. Though none of these periods of study are documented, evidence of the works themselves largely corroborates Houbraken’s statement.
Berchem’s early paintings in the native Dutch tonal style support some connection with van Goyen; a drawing by Berchem (the Calling of St Matthew, c1642; New Haven, CT, Yale University Art Gallery) after a work by Moeyaert (1639; Brunswick, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum) lends credence to the suggestion that he studied with Moeyaert in Amsterdam, as does his receptiveness to the pre-Rembrandtists in his early work; and Berchem’s classicising works of the 1650s can be related to Haarlem classicism, one of whose greatest exponents was de Grebber. However, given that Jan Baptist Weenix and Berchem were so close in age, a student–teacher relationship seems unlikely; there are nonetheless parallels in the work of both artists and they collaborated on at least one occasion, in the Calling of St Matthew (c. 1655; The Hague, Mauritshuis), which includes a self-portrait of Berchem.
Berchem joined the Haarlem Guild of St Luke on 6 May 1642 and had three pupils by August of that same year. In 1646 he married Catrijne Claesdr. de Groot in Haarlem; he is also said to have been married a second time, to the daughter of Jan Wils. His son Nicolaes (van) Berchem (c. 1649/50–1672) was also an artist and copied his father’s works. Several drawings confirm that Berchem the elder travelled with Jacob van Ruisdael through Westphalia c. 1650, and the Castle of Bentheim, a landmark there, figures in works by both artists (e.g. Berchem’s Landscape with Castle Bentheim, 1656; Dresden, Gemäldegallerie Alte Meister).
The question of whether or when Berchem visited Italy remains unanswered. It has been assumed that he went twice, perhaps even three times. Houbraken stated that Berchem made a sea voyage as a young man, adding that he had already been painting for some time. Berchem is said to have made the first trip in 1642 together with Jan Baptist Weenix, but although the latter is documented as being in Rome until 1645, there is no mention of Berchem’s presence there. The second, more plausible trip would have occurred some time between 1651 and 1653, and the fact that Berchem and his wife drew up their will in 1649 may have been in anticipation of the artist’s prolonged absence.
Based on a misreading of a document, it was proposed that the artist made a third trip in 1673, but this has been proved wrong. While not conclusive, the presence of works by Berchem at an early date in the Colonna family collection (inventory of 1714) and a biography, most likely of Berchem, written by Nicola Pio in 1724, with a list of the collections that he knew contained works by Berchem, provide support for the artist’s presence in Italy at some point.
From the mid-1650s until his death, Berchem shuttled back and forth between Haarlem and Amsterdam. He is mentioned in Haarlem in 1656 and 1657, in Amsterdam in 1660 (when he served as witness at the betrothal of Jan Wils), again in Haarlem in 1670, after which he moved permanently to Amsterdam. The paintings remaining in his estate were auctioned by his wife on 4 May 1683 for 12,000 guilders (notice in the Haarlemsche Courant, 27 April 1683, no. 16), and on 7 December 1683, (notice in the Haarlemsche Courant, 30 Nov 1683) his books and all the graphic works he had owned were sold, including drawings and prints by himself and others (over 1300 by Antonio Tempesta).
The quality and variety of Berchem’s painted work is remarkable. Around 1645 he produced landscapes with shepherds and cattle in a brownish tonality inspired by Jan van Goyen and by Pieter van Laer, whose work Berchem knew either directly (van Laer was in Haarlem in 1642) or through prints. However, c. 1650 Berchem’s colouration became brighter and he turned to scenes of panoramic vistas (e.g. Italian Landscape with Figures and Animals; Windsor Castle, Berks, Royal Collection) that are indebted to Jan Asselijn.
From the 1650s he began making landscapes in a purely Italianate style, characterised by more varied and saturated colours, some of which are reminiscent of the work of Jan Both. The figures became more elegant and attenuated and the scenes, often idealizing rural life, are pervaded by a warm southern light. Berchem’s Landscape with Tall Trees (1653; Paris, Louvre) combines a number of elements considered typical, including the warm light, fluid handling, distant vistas, shepherds on the move and imposing trees. Sometimes Berchem’s landscapes incorporate identifiable sites and architecture, such as the waterfalls at Tivoli or the nearby Temple of the Sibyls, as well as Dutch landmarks, such as the ruins of Brederode Castle or Kronenburg Castle near Loenen.
He also painted imaginary Mediterranean harbour scenes, which found their most sophisticated form in the 1660s. A masterpiece in this genre is the Moor Presenting a Parrot to a Lady (c. 1660; Hartford, CT, Wadsworth Atheneum), in which the elegantly dressed woman, her maid and a Moor with a parrot hold pride of place. Painted in his most liquid yet precise style, the composition exquisitely balances the colourful group of exotically dressed figures and the monochrome group, including the statue of Venus with the two turtle-doves, with the classicizing building in the background. The specific subject of this painting is unclear.
Berchem continued to paint landscapes and histories in the 1670s and 1680s, and his style became broader and looser, marked by stronger contrasts of light and dark and a thinner application of paint. His figures were less fluid and graceful and could almost be described as agitated (e.g. Landscape, 1680; Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum). Towards the end of his career he painted a considerable number of allegorical scenes and histories (e.g. the Allegory of Celestial and Profane Love; Wiesbaden, Museum Wiesbaden).
Nicholaes Berchem is represented in the following collections: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Hermitage, St Petersburg; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; National Gallery, London; Wallace Collection, London; University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, MI; Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen; Gemäldegalerie, Dresden; Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent; Dulwich Picture Gallery, London; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Alte Pinakothek, Munich; Louvre, Paris; Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco; National Brukenthal Museum, Sibiu, amongst others.
Sphinx Fine Art
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