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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Nicolaes Pietersz Berchem/View of an Italian Port/early 1660s,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed June 20, 2024).

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Apr 24, 2014 Version
Jan 01, 1995 Version

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In this scene, Nicolaes Pietersz Berchem captures both the beauty of the Italian landscape and the cool, crystalline light that imbues it with its distinctive atmospheric quality. Towering cliffs, surmounted by a round bastion and a sturdy tower, form the dramatic backdrop for the arrival of a Dutch merchant ship in a calm harbor. The galley with the furled sail lies tilted to one side, indicating that it is low tide. Two lighters—small wide-bottom barges used to ferry goods to ships anchored in deeper water—seem to await the Dutch ship’s arrival. A hunting party joins several cattlemen and goatherds at the water’s edge. The elegant couple on horseback is focused on the falcon airing its wings on the woman’s arm. The man with the staff standing next to the pair is likely the master of the hunt, the individual in charge of the dogs.

Berchem was one of the most popular and successful of the Dutch seventeenth-century Italianate landscape painters. A native of Haarlem, he probably visited Italy sometime between 1653 and 1656. Berchem’s extensive oeuvre of paintings, drawings, and etchings consists of imagined views of the Italian countryside, depictions of the hunt, as well as biblical and mythological scenes. The large number of prints made after his paintings in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is indicative of Berchem’s fame.


In this idyllic scene, Berchem captures both the beauty of the Italian landscape and the cool, crystalline light that imbues it with its distinctive atmospheric quality.[1] Situated against a backdrop of towering cliffs that drop straight down to the calm waters below, the exotic character of this harbor setting is defined not by buildings or wharfs but by the various types of figures that have come together at the water’s edge. The most prominent of these is the elegant couple who, fresh from the hunt, sit astride their steeds. Wearing wide-brimmed hats with flowing feathers, they talk to a standing gentleman while the woman’s falcon airs its wings. The gentleman holding his staff is probably the keeper of the hunting dogs that are seen mingling, two of them being held by a young assistant in the lower left. What has brought them to the harbor is not clear, but they may well be awaiting a ferry to transport them either to one of the ships anchored in deeper water or to the far shore. Behind them two wide-bottomed ferries are already loaded with cargo. In the one filled with cattle, two figures wrestle a recalcitrant goat along a gangplank, while before the other ferry two men in Oriental dress stand and talk, while a third sits in the boat, waiting for it to push off. In the right foreground, a shepherd tending to a cow and some sheep also awaits transport.

Although no documentary evidence exists that proves that Berchem actually visited Italy, it seems probable that he traveled there sometime between 1653 and 1656,[2] because it is highly unlikely that he could otherwise have captured the special light and character of this faraway land with such seeming effortlessness. While View of an Italian Port does not represent an identifiable location, such details as the characteristic Italian ship anchored offshore, with its long red oars stretching out to either side, point to Berchem’s careful observation of what, for a Dutchman, was an unusual type of vessel. Just where Berchem might have seen such cliffs is not known, but similar formations surmounted by large buildings appear in the background of a number of his paintings. Comparable cliffs can be seen in paintings by other artists, as in Coastal Landscape by Moonlight, attributed to Aelbert Cuyp, in the Six Collection, Amsterdam.

As with most of his Italianate paintings, Berchem executed View of an Italian Port in the Netherlands, probably in the early 1660s.[3] He painted for a Dutch clientele eager for idealized views of the Italian landscape. Judging from the various copies of this painting, the work struck a responsive chord.[4] Its qualities were greatly admired in the mid-eighteenth century, when the image was engraved in 1753 by A. Delfos,[5] and in the early nineteenth century, when the first written descriptions of it appeared. In the 1831 catalog of the famous collection of Chevalier Érard, for example, the catalog entry reads in part: “One admires in this painting . . . all the taste, [and] all the spirit of the celebrated Berchem. Its composition is appointed, [and] its groups are arranged and varied with much thought; air circulates everywhere, [and] the recession into space is perfect. The execution, [and] the preservation leave nothing to be desired.”[6]

The classicism of this painting, with its strong horizontal and vertical accents in the landscape and the clear, crystalline light, compellingly places the work in the 1660s. The fluidity of Berchem’s brushwork and the elegance of the couple on horseback are also consistent with this date. A comparison of View of an Italian Port to another harbor scene by Berchem, Coastal Scene with Crab Catchers [fig. 1], datable to about 1658,[7] demonstrates the evolution in style that Berchem’s work underwent between the late 1650s and early 1660s. Although one encounters a comparable contrast between foreground figures and a distant vista of cliffs across a body of water in the earlier work, the foreground and background elements are not so closely integrated as they are in the Gallery’s painting, while the distinctions of light and color are more pronounced. Another comparative work is Berchem’s Wild Boar Hunt [fig. 2], signed and dated 1659, where a similar grouping of figures on horseback occurs. While the position of the white horse in both paintings is virtually identical, the horse in the Gallery’s painting is somewhat more schematically rendered, which is characteristic of Berchem’s style of the 1660s.[8]

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


lower right: Berchem



Johan van Lanschot, Leiden, by 1753;[1] by inheritance to his son-in-law, Pieter Cornelis, baron van Leyden [1717-1788, known during his lifetime as the Heer van Leyden van Vlaardingen], Leiden;[2] by inheritance with the paintings in his collection to his son, Diederik van Leyden, [1744-1810/1811], Leiden and Amsterdam;[3] sold, with the rest of his father's painting collection, for 100,000 florins to a consortium formed by L.B. Coclers, Alexander Joseph Paillet, and A. de Lespinasse de Langeac;[4] (sale of the van Leyden painting collection, A. Paillet and H. Delaroche, Paris, 5-8 November 1804, 1st day, no. 8);[5] H. Delaroche. John Parke, Esq., London; (his sale, Peter Coxe, London, 8-9 May 1812, no. 37). (John Smith, London); sold to John Webb, Esq., London. Chevalier Sébastien Érard [1752-1831], Château de la Muette, near the Bois de Boulogne, Paris; (his estate sale, at his residence by Lacoste and Coutelier, 7-14 August 1832 [originally scheduled for 23 April and days following], no. 62);[6] purchased by Alexis-Nicolas Pérignon, Paris, for Jonkheer Johan Steengracht van Oostcapelle [1782-1846], The Hague;[7] by inheritance to his son, Hendrik Steengracht van Oosterland [1808-1875], The Hague; by inheritance to his nephew, Hendricus Adolphus Steengracht van Duivenvoorde [1836-1912], The Hague; (his estate sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 9 June 1913, no. 4); Mr. Boyer.[8] by inheritance from the collector’s grandfather to private collection; (sale, Adar Picard Tajan, Paris, 9 April 1990, no. 82); Robert H. and Clarice Smith, Washington; gift (partial and promised) 1990 to NGA; gift completed 1996..

Exhibition History

Art for the Nation: Gifts in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1991, unnumbered catalogue, repro.

Technical Summary

The support, a medium-weight, plain-weave fabric, is loosely woven of irregularly spun threads. Part of the original tacking margins were retained at the time of lining and incorporated into the picture plane, slightly expanding the dimensions on all four sides. Lining has reinforced the weave texture.

Paint is applied over an off-white ground in thin opaque layers worked wet over dry. Minor losses are confined to the edges. The upper right corner of the sky is abraded, as are the edges. No treatment has been undertaken at the National Gallery.


Smith, John. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters. 9 vols. London, 1829-1842: 5(1934):47, no. 137.
Catalogue des tableaux italiens, flamands, hollandais et français: des anciennes écoles, qui composent la magnifique galerie de M. le Chevalier Érard. Paris, 1831: 82-83, no. 62.
Waagen, Gustav Friedrich. Treasures of Art in Great Britain: Being an Account of the Chief Collections of Paintings, Drawings, Sculptures, Illuminated Mss.. 3 vols. Translated by Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake. London, 1854: 2:95.
Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. 8 vols. Translated by Edward G. Hawke. London, 1907-1927: 9(1926):80, no. 107.
Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. Beschreibendes und kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke der hervorragendsten holländischen Maler des XVII. Jahrhunderts. 10 vols. Esslingen and Paris, 1907-1928: 9(1926):80, no. 107.
Schaar, Eckhard. Studien zu Nicolaes Berchem. Cologne, 1958: 86.
National Gallery of Art. Art for the Nation: Gifts in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1991: 74-75, color repro.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 23-24, color repro. 25.
Waagen, Gustav Friedrich. Treasures of Art in Great Britain. Translated by Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake. Facsimile edition of London 1854. London, 2003: 2:95.
Vries, Annette de, Quentin Buvelot, and Femke Foppema. Passie voor schilderijen: de verzameling Steengracht van Duivenvoorde. Exh. cat. Kasteel Duivenvoorde, Voorschoten. Leiden, 2012: 42, 84-85, color repros. 5 and 35.
Wheelock, Arthur K, Jr. "The Evolution of the Dutch Painting Collection." National Gallery of Art Bulletin no. 50 (Spring 2014): 2-19, repro.

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