Search the Collections

Nicolaes Pietersz Berchem
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
A prolific painter, draughtsman and etcher, Nicolaes Berchem was a leading member of the second generation of Dutch artists working in the Italianate style durng Holland's Golden Age. An archival document from 1661 indicates he was born in 1621 or 1622. Berchem received his first artistic instruction from his father, the still-life painter Pieter Claesz (1597/98-1660). In his early 18th-century study of Dutch painters, Arnold Houbraken (1660-1719) wrote that Berchem studied with several other artists. Based on a 1639 drawing it seems likely that Berchem studied with Claes Moeyaert (1591-1655) in Amsterdam that year, and he probably studied with Pieter de Grebber (ca. 1600-1652/53) in Haarlem sometime between 1637 and 1639. He entered Haarlem’s painters’ guild, the Guild of St. Luke, in 1642, and soon was instructing pupils. Berchem’s early pastoral paintings and drawings, depicting the landscape of Holland, were influenced by the works of Pieter van Laer (1599-ca. 1642). He began making prints early in his career; two of pastoral scenes done in etching and drypoint from 1644 are set in Italian landscapes. Drawings made by Berchem document a trip he made with his friend Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/29-1682) in Westphalia around 1650, and his early work reflects Ruisdael’s influence. After 1650 his palette brightened and most of his landscapes and pastoral scenes were in an Italianate style, reflecting the influence of Jan Asselyn (ca. 1610-1652), Jan Both (ca. 1615-1652) and Jan Baptist Weenix (1621-1660/61), who like van Laer had lived in Italy. Scholars have not been able to determine if Berchem ever visited Italy, the inspiration for much of his art. Houbraken claims Berchem traveled to Italy as a young man and others have suggested that he traveled there during 1642-1645 and again in 1653-1655, but recent scholarship concludes that no such trips were made. Berchem created a prodigious number of Italianate landscapes and views of imaginary Mediterranean harbors, as well as a wide variety of works on other themes. His works include allegorical, biblical, historical, genre and mythological scenes, landscapes depicting scenes from the Netherlands, and imagined portraits of biblical saints. His Italian scenes often depicted recognizable ancient Roman monuments or statues (“caprici”) in imaginary settings. Scholars attribute to him approximately eight hundred fifty hundred paintings, indicating the strong demand for his works (see Biesboer, p. 73). While many of his hundreds of surviving drawings are preparatory studies for paintings or designs for prints, he also created finished drawings intended for sale to collectors. Berchem enjoyed commercial success during his lifetime and was respected by his fellow artists; he was warden of the Haarlem guild in 1656-1657 and was dean in 1657-1658. In addition to his own paintings, Berchem apparently collaborated with other artists, including Weenix, Ruisdael, and Gerrit Dou (1613-1675), with Berchem painting the figures in landscapes. Berchem created approximately fifty-seven prints, mostly pastoral scenes and figures of animals. In addition, his designs were used for approximately 130 prints made by others in Holland during his lifetime, not including various title pages, book and map illustrations and prints made in other countries. The Haarlem printmaker Cornelis Visscher (1628-29-1658) began making prints based on Berchem’s designs in the 1650s using a combination of etching and engraving; in several cases the drawings on which the prints were based still survive, leading scholars to conclude that Berchem was involved in the production of the prints. After Visscher’s death in 1658 his younger brother Johannes (1633-after 1692) moved to Amsterdam and began producing prints after Berchem’s designs, and eventually produced almost ninety different images; drawings by Berchem survive on which several of these prints were based. Berchem had moved to Amsterdam by 1661 and perhaps arrived there earlier to work on a commission from the Amsterdam cartographer Nicolaes Visscher (1618-1709), who published a map of the world in 1658 with decorations designed by Berchem and engraved by Johannes Visscher. Other Amsterdam printmakers also used Berchem’s designs for their works, including Dancker Danckerts (1633/34-1666) and Johannes Groensvelt (ca 1660-1728). These prints were widely copied in the 17th century; Wuestman speculates that thousands of prints after Berchem were made, in Paris and Rome as well as Holland. Berchem returned to Harlem in 1670 and was again appointed warden of the Haarlem guild that year. He returned to Amsterdam, in around 1677, where he died in 1683. Berchem’s work has been characterized as a precursor of the Rococo and remained popular during the 18th century and into the early 19h century, with collectors paying high prices for his paintings and printmakers selling prints after his designs. (TNB 7/2011) Selected bibliography: Biesboer, Pieter, et al. Nicolaes Berchem: In the Light of Italy. Exhibition catalog. Haarlem: Frans Hals Museum, Ghent: Ludion, 2006.