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20 May 2020updated 28 May 2020 8:13am

The greats outdoors: How Nicolaes Berchem offered vistas of a golden Arcadia

With no evidence that the 17th-century Dutchman ever visited Italy, it seems rather that he invented Italy in his mind and painted that invention. 

By Michael Prodger

John Constable was not known for his sharp tongue, but in 1836, in preparation for a series of lectures he was to give on painting to the Royal Institution, he proposed to do mortal harm to two fellow artists. In a note to a friend he announced his intention “to murder Both and Berghem on Thursday next at a quarter to four o’clock”. What sparked his ire?

Jan Both and Nicolaes Berchem were two lauded Dutch landscapists of the mid-17th century whose work had found favour in aristocratic and royal collections across Europe, while Constable himself was an admirer, indeed a spiritual student, of the Dutch school. Their crime, as he saw it, was that they were not Dutch enough. Rather than stick to the naturalistic portrayal of the Netherlands’ waterways, woods, windmills and meadows, Both and Berchem were among the artists who had turned Italianate. They had swapped grey northern skies for the golden light of the south and exchanged the burghers of the Low Countries for the rustics of an antique land.

Constable’s faux-homicidal displeasure was a sign of changing tastes. In the 17th century Berchem (1620-83) was a painter to be reckoned with. His limpid idylls fetched double the price of the earthier pictures of his teacher Jan van Goyen and by the end of the century they changed hands for three times as much. His paintings, of which he made more than 800, were luxury products for the upper classes rather than for the aspiring middle class that drove the art boom of the Dutch Golden Age. By Constable’s time, however, they were beginning to be seen as confected gewgaws when compared to the more authentic work of Rembrandt, Jacob van Ruisdael and Van Goyen.

Peasants by a Ruined Aqueduct by Nicolaes Berchem (Bridgeman Images)

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At his best, Berchem deserves better. His mellow visions of Arcadia offered an alternative to the austere and approved classical landscapes of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, with their intellectually respectable myths and allegories. As exemplified by Peasants by a Ruined Aqueduct, painted between 1655 and 1660, and now in the National Gallery, Berchem’s pastorals represented a form of innocent escapism and they are in many ways utterly inconsequential – except in their beauty. They are untrue to nature, show neither reality nor allusions, they contain no narrative or tension, but nevertheless, these roseate views, full of the poetry of tumbled buildings, warm scented air and silence, have a hinterland.

It was long thought that Berchem’s Italianate landscapes were the result of a visit he made across the Alps in the early 1650s. However, no documentary evidence exists for such a journey and nor are there any topographical sketches to be found. It seems rather that he invented Italy in his mind and painted that invention. Other Dutch artists had made the trip, from Rogier van der Weyden in the 15th century and Pieter Bruegel in the 16th to Pieter van Laer, Berchem’s older contemporary. Indeed, so many Dutch painters gathered in Rome in the early 1600s that they were known as the Bentvueghels, birds of a feather. Berchem knew their work, in part because his father-in-law was a picture dealer, and was heavily influenced by it.

Not that Berchem lost himself in his Elysium. He understood what the market wanted and he set out to provide it. His first teacher was his father, Pieter Claesz, and the young artist initially wanted to paint history and biblical scenes. His change of surname seems to tie in with his change of direction. Arnold Houbraken, the Dutch Vasari who between 1718 and 1721 published a collection of artists’ lives called The Great Theatre of Dutch Painters, said that Berchem took his name from “berg hem” – “save him”. He needed saving once, when his fellow apprentices had to hide him from his irate father who had chased him into the workshop to give him a beating, and later when the young painter changed his mind at the last moment about going to sea. In fact, Berchem is the name of his father’s home town.

Berchem did not fully abandon the higher artistic genres, and biblical scenes and mythologies appear throughout his career – as well as scenes of cavalrymen when they enjoyed a brief vogue. It was, though, the Italianate landscapes that made his fortune. He followed the patronage from Haarlem to Amsterdam and back again, becoming a member of the Reformed Church along the way and amassing enough money to be able to buy a garden with an orchard and a “new and pleasant summerhouse” in a well-to-do part of Haarlem in the 1650s. He also developed a thriving print career and could make 100 guilders from an edition of a single etching at a time when a master carpenter earned 200 guilders annually.

Regardless of the business side, Berchem’s artistry is of a high order. He may have painted innumerable variations of those picturesque stock peasant figures, cows and hills, but he combined them poetically to give an echo of the happy countryman, beatus ille, of Horace and the shepherds of Virgil’s Eclogues. If he offered his canal-side patrons the prospect of travel through time and space to an Italian dreamland, then he made sure they went first class. 

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This article appears in the 20 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show