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Berchem in Italy: notes on an unpublished painting
By Guido Jansen
Looking through the numerous boxes containing photographs of works by Nicolaes Berchem at the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) in The Hague, one is apt to pay little attention to a painting known only from a small illustration in the catalogue of an auction held in Brussels in 1955 (fig. 1). The panel, which the catalogue lists as signed, shows a hilly Italianate landscape with a double arched bridge and some houses on the left. In the foreground are five figures, while the righthand side of the painting is dominated by a towering group of trees.
A note beneath the illustration at the RKD suggests that it may be a copy after a painting by Berchem. The coarse and somewhat clumsy execution does indeed point in this direction. The putative original version by Berchem, however, remained unknown.
Berchem's original work has now been identified, and we can see that the doubts about the au¬thenticity of the painting sold in Brussels turn out to be justified. The original, published here for the first time, currently hangs in one of the offices of the Avvocatura Comunale in Milan, where it is on loan from the Civiche Raccolte d'Arte Antica in the Castello Sforzesco (fig. 2).
The painting entered this municipal art gallery in 1865, when Count Gian Giacomo Bolognini Attendolo donated his entire collection to the city of Milan. The canvas thus came to be incorporated in the municipal collections of the Castello Sforzesco, along with many other Dutch and Flemish works. In 1926 C. Vicenzi published a catalogue listing almost the entire collection of paintings, but for some reason this work was not included. No new inventory was subsequently issued, so the painting remained unnoticed.
Comparison with the work of the copyist shows that the latter was rather free in his rendering. The buildings standing in bright sunshine under a cloudy sky on the left are identical in both versions. The two women conversing in the foreground, the group of animals, and most of the trees in the background have also been faithfully copied. Only the group on the right, barely visible in the illustration because of an old layer of varnish, has been omitted. Here the copyist substituted three other figures which appear to have been derived from another work by Berchem.
The recovery of the Milan painting fills a major hiatus in Berchem's dated works from the beginning of the 1650s, for it is signed and dated Berghem 1651. This discovery is of particular interest, because it provides information on the most important period in Berchem's artistic development.
Ilse von Sick, Eckhard Schaar and Albert Blankert all agree that Berchem's individual Italianate style did not reach full maturity until the second half of the 1650s. A group of drawings and paintings dated 1653, which clearly demonstrate the stylistic transition to a purely Italianate landscape (cf. fig. 3), constitute the chief argument in favor of the artist's presence in Italy around that time. Blankert, too, assumed that if Berchem traveled to Italy he must have done so around 1653-1655. In a slightly later publication he revised this dating, because the artist was very probably back in Haarlem by 1654: "Berchem is assumed to have visited Italy; this visit most probably occurred between 1650 and 1653." Nevertheless, 1653-1655 continued to be cited in most of the literature as the date of Berchem's hypothetical trip.
The importance which is attached to the year 1653 appears to derive from the lack of dated works from the years 1650 to 1653. Both Schaar and Blankert explicitly acknowledge that "land¬scapes from 1651 are presently no longer known."' The recovery of the Milan painting thus affords a better insight into Berchem's development in this important period.
It is clear that the artist's striking stylistic innovation in the 1650s, which is characterized compositionally by strong horizontals in the staffage and in the groupings of the trees (cf. fig. 3), is already quite pronounced in the Milan painting. Moreover, the elaborateness of the trees and the forceful chiaroscuro accord well with Berchem's work from 1653. Even the clouds, which are remarkably compact by this artist's standards, are clearly comparable to a later landscape dated 1653.
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