An Oil Sketch of a Donkey
An Oil Sketch of a Donkey

An Oil Sketch of a Donkey

Nicolaes Berchem, Study of a muleteer and mule heads, c. 1654/1655

Oil on paper on linen,
20 x 26 cm.


Nicolaes Pietersz Berchem (Haarlem 1621/22 - Amsterdam 1683) was one of the most
successful landscape painters of the seventeenth century. Aside from his famous views of
Italy, his oeuvre of paintings, drawings, and etchings depict diverse hunting, biblical and
mythological scenes. He received training under his father, the still-life painter Pieter Claesz
(1596/1597-1660) and entered the Saint Luke’s Guild in Haarlem in 1642 with three pupils
under his guidance. In 1646 he married Catrijne Claes de Groot in Haarlem.
There are some similarities with the oeuvres of painters who worked in Italy, such as Jan
Asselijn and Karel Dujardin, and it is possible (however unrecorded) that Berchem himself
travelled to the south during the first years of the 1650s (see RKDartists, nr 6727). There he
could have taken note of a wide variety of motifs such as peasants crossing a ford, resting
travelers, sheep shearers, grazing cows, and muleteers with their herd. The latter motif appears in his work from 1654 onwards (Rijksmuseum, inv. RP-P-1977-416; RP-P-OB-
62.120; Lakenhal, inv. NK 1593).

Berchem painted a striking example of a muleteer and a few mule heads with colorful and
elaborate details in oil on paper – a rare example of study material that has survived from the
artist. The work can be dated circa 1654/1655 given a print and preparatory drawing that he
probably made in his hometown of Haarlem. Specifically, the muleteer that sits sideways on
the mule outfitted with blinders, plume and tassels reappeared in his drawing that functioned
as an example for the printmaker Johannes Visscher. It turned out to be a perfect motif – with an additional herdswoman and cattle – for the title page of Berchem’s Diversa animalia
quadrupedia, a famous series of prints of four-legged animals published for an international
audience from 1655 onwards. Notably, the muleteer now teases his dog with a stick; a lively
element that takes place in front of an ancient fountain.

Nicolaes Berchem, Muleteer and shepherdess at a fountain, pen and washed ink, 1655, Paris, Musée des Beaux- Arts de la Ville de Paris, Petit Palais. Johannes Visscher after Nicolaes Berchem, Muleteer and shepherdess at a fountain, title page of 'Diversa animalia quadrupedia', 1655, print, Rijksmuseum, inv. RP-P-1904-1974.

Berchem must have been a keen artist who knew that his Italian landscapes reached only a
small group of art collectors. By putting his work also in print – published by the renowned
Frederik de Wit in Amsterdam – he could make the most of his timeless and idyllic scenes
and figures, often embedded in an Arcadic landscape and always bathed in southern light.
It is no surprise that Berchem’s contemporaries also adopted the genre of Italian landscapes,
through local study or ‘naar het leven’ in Rome and surrounding areas. Yet these elements
and motifs must have been shared, copied, and adjusted on a large scale back in the
Netherlands, as well. His colleague and Roman ‘Bentvueghel’ Jan Asselijn (1610-1652) and
Berchem’s pupil and Roman ‘Bentvueghel’ Karel Dujardin (1626-1678) both depicted mules
bearing blinders and decorated with plumes and tassels several times – sometimes even in a
very similar style and pose as Berchem (Rijksmuseum, inv. SK-C-89; SK-A-194; RP-P-1885-
A-9552). It is therefore not easy to recognize the hand of the master.

Nicolaes Berchem, Mountainous landscape with muleteers, 1658, oil on canvas, 109 x 126 cm, London, National Gallery, inv. NG1004.

However, the clue that the oil study was made by Berchem, and not Asselijn, Dujardin, or any
other contemporary, lies in the exact reappearance of the muleteer and the mules in a signed
painting on canvas that is dated 1658. It is also a sign that Berchem kept his oil study as a
reference in his studio for later occasions.

Nicolaes Berchem, Mountainous landscape with muleteers, details, 1658, oil on canvas, 109 x 126 cm, London, National Gallery, inv. NG1004.

Four travelers with a pack of mules, a few sheep, and a dog cross a vast mountainous
landscape with the soft light of a sunset cast over a spectacular view. The two mules in bright
blue and red decorations, the muleteer with the wide-brimmed hat (now pointing at his fellow
muleteer), the head of the fully packed mule whose hoof is being inspected, and the young
mule with fluffy hair on his forehead are all copied exactly from the oil study.

These southern landscapes depicting a pristine, almost paradisiacal world, were found in the
costliest art collections of the upper classes. Indeed, prices of these works rose to remarkable
heights. An average of 33 guilders was paid for a Berchem in 1651-1675; in 1676-1700 this
was already three times as much. It is safe to say that Nicolaes Berchem was one of the most
sought after seventeenth-century Dutch painters – and still is today.


P. Biesboer e.a., Nicolaes Berchem: In het licht van Italië, Gent 2006.
J.M. Kilian, The paintings of Karel du Jardin (1626-1678): Catalogue raisonné, Amsterdam 2005.
A.K. Wheelock, 'Nicolaes Pietersz Berchem', NGA Online Editions,
A. van der Willigen en M.C. de Kinkelder, Dictionary of Dutch and Flemish landscape and marine painters
working in oils, active before 1725, typescript 1993/1998.