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.
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, purl.org/nga/collection/constituent/2377.
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.