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Nicolaes Pietersz. Berchem (Haarlem 1621-1683 Amsterdam)

Studies of a sheep, rams and lambs

black chalk
20.3 x 29.7 cm

Nathaniel Hone (1718-1784), London (L. 2793).

Even though Nicolaes Berchem never set foot in Italy, he was one of the most prolific Dutch Italianate painters of the 17th century. His numerous landscapes, inhabited with shepherds and their herds, horse riders and travellers, are infused with the golden light for which the Italianates are known. That Berchem prepared these landscapes meticulously is confirmed by the large number of drawings by his hand that have survived. While complete compositional studies are rare in the artist’s drawn œuvre – one of such drawings is preserved in the British Museum, London[1] – the artist did use sketches to staffage his paintings with cows, sheep or figures. Rather than using preparatory drawings for his paintings, the artist used his drawings to supply his paintings with figures, sheep or cattle.[2] The present drawing is such a sheet; quickly executed in black chalk, this drawing was no doubt made from life. The style, subject and size of the drawing can be compared to a number of sheets now in institutional collections. The drawing is perhaps closest to a sheet in the Frits Lugt Collection, which shows three rams and sheep that are loosely organised on its page as is the case in the present drawing.[3] Furthermore, there are two closely comparable drawings in the Louvre, both showing studies of sheep and a ram.[4] These sheets have been dated by Annemarie Stefes to circa 1654, a date which might apply to the present drawing too. A third drawing in the Louvre, although slightly more worked up than the present sheet, is closely comparable too.[5] Interestingly, Nathaniel Hone, whose mark can be found lower right on the present sheet, owned a counterproof of that drawing which is now preserved in the Louvre too.[6] The more linear approach to the lesser worked out sheep and rams in the present drawings can furthermore be compared to a sheet in the Städel Museum, Frankfurt.[7]
Interestingly, Berchem used the present drawing for one of the rams in his painting A farrier shoeing an ass near ruins, now in the Dulwich picture gallery (Fig. 1)[8], and as such the drawing offers us a glimpse into the artist’s studio practice. Not only does the drawing demonstrates that the artist picked single motives from different sheets, it too shows us that these studies also served as studies of light rather than only being studies of form. While there are differences between the ram in the drawing (note the differences between the shapes of the horns) and the one in the painting, the light and shade on the painted ram follows that of the drawn one particularly closely. This is especially apparent in the fur in the ram’s neck, his horns and in his cheek where the division of light and shade is indicated with a single line in the drawing.

I am grateful to Annemarie Stefes for her assistance in cataloguing this drawing and for confirming the attribution.

[1] A. Stefes, ‘Nicolaes Berchem als tekenaar’, in 'Nicolaes Berchem. In het licht van Italië', exhib. cat., Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem and elsewhere, 2006-2007, pp. 98-99, fig. 42.
[2] ibid., p. 99.
[3] inv. 783.
[4] inv. 22453 and 22454.
[5] inv. RF 644
[6] inv. 22464.
[7] inv. 751.
[8] inv. DPG088

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