Autumnal colours and a soft sky lend a certain melancholy to a vast landscape. The high cliff and spindly birch trees on one side and a dark cluster of undergrowth on the other narrow the view, almost hypnotic in its stillness. The figures in the foreground seem almost incidental but flashes of white capture the attention.
A group of travellers with pack mules, known as muleteers, takes advantage of a stop to tend an injured animal and to take a rest. Berchem keeps the figures small and tightly packed so their activities – examining the mule, adjusting a shoe – need to be disentangled.
We don't know if Berchem had ever been to Italy but he knew other artists, such as Jan Both, who had; what is certain is that he understood the breadth, moods and colours of its landscapes. These were highly prized and sought after by his audience, many of whom had never left the flat plains and northern light of the Dutch Republic.
Berchem leads us towards a soft sky and on into a vast landscape. The high cliff and spindly trees on one side and a dark cluster of undergrowth on the other narrow the view, directing our eyes to a distant hill, almost hypnotic in its stillness. The figures in the foreground seem almost incidental but flashes of white here and there capture the attention.
A group of travellers with pack mules, known as muleteers, takes advantage of a stop to tend an injured animal, to feed others, and take a rest themselves. Berchem keeps the figures small and tightly packed so their activities need to be disentangled. A man perches on the back of his beast and hoists up a leg to adjust a shoe. The white line of his stocking leads down the white sleeve of the muleteer kneeling at a large stone. His animal strains forward to hold up its foot for inspection, the meeting of hand and hoof forming the focus of the little group. Just above, the quirky contrast of the mule’s knobbly knee and the bare, round knee of the man is a pleasing, witty touch.
Berchem gives the harnesses of the older animals a traditional muleteers‘ decoration in bright colours, with tasselled headdresses like tiny coronets, but they all carry large round medallions on their foreheads. The bolster on the back of the injured mule catches the last of the sun, the gleaming white echoed on the muleteer’s shirt and the nosebag of the blue-bridled mule on the right. Nosy sheep surround a smaller animal carrying a lamb in one of its panniers. Beyond them, behind the rise, a peasant herds cows down a hidden path.
The dead tree jutting out in the foreground seems to point the way down to a tower beside a lake that vanishes behind the trees. Some of the muleteers have set off on their way and one, with his mules, is already little more than a distant shadow -– but it would appear there’s no hurry.
The scene seems idyllic though with a tinge of melancholy. Already dying ivy trails from branches and the leaves of at least one tree are turning brown, with bare twigs tracing a filigree pattern that curves in the air. The wide-brimmed hats of the muleteers may be shading them from the heat, but the Italian sun will fade and the hats be needed to ward off winter storms.
We don’t know if Berchem had ever been to Italy, but he knew other artists who had, like Jan Both whose paintings, made ten years earlier but on a similar scale, Berchem emulates (like A Rocky Italian Landscape with Herdsmen and Muleteers and A Rocky Landscape with an Ox-cart). What is certain is that Berchem understood the breadth, moods, and colours of Italy’s landscapes. His paintings of them were highly prized and sought after by his audience, many of whom had never left the flat plains and northern light of the Dutch Republic and to whom a picture of the warm light of Italy and its iconic characters was a source of delight.
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