Nicolaes Berchem’s Nurture of Jupiter

Emma C. de Jong

Fig. 2. Back of the High Museum panel (1980.57).

The seventeenth-century Dutch painter Nicolaes Berchem (ca. 1621–1683) is known primarily for his pastoral paintings with Italianate landscapes and setting suns. Besides paintings, Berchem also produced many drawings and prints, often with similar subjects. Most of the art-historical literature focuses on his pastoral works or technical aspects of his drawings, whereas little attention has been paid to the intricacies of his mythological and allegorical paintings. Berchem’s small panel painting The Nurture of Jupiter (figs. 1, 2) at the High Museum of Art fosters an exploration of both the mythological and allegorical aspects of Berchem’s work. The High panel also offers a starting point for investigating Berchem’s creative process and copying practices.


Nicolaes Berchem was born in Haarlem, the Netherlands, in 1621 or 1622 in Haarlem as Claes Pietersz. His father, Pieter Claesz., was a painter and his son’s first teacher. As a last name, Nicolaes took Berchem, the Flemish birthplace of his father. Between 1634 and 1639, Nicolaes Berchem studied with three different masters: Jan van Goyen, Claes Moeyaert, and Pieter de Grebber. He subsequently spent his career living in either Haarlem or Amsterdam, moving back and forth between the cities several times. In 1646 he married Catharina de Groot, with whom he had several children. Their son Nicolaes Berchem the Younger was also a painter, but he died in Paris in 1672 at the age of 22. Nicolaes Berchem passed away in 1683 and was buried in the Westerkerk in Amsterdam. Berchem was a popular artist during his lifetime, aided by his ability to change his style to keep up with current tastes. Berchem’s popularity only increased after his death, and until the second half of the eighteenth century his works consistently went for the highest prices at auction, especially in France. The mannerist style of his later works ensured his popularity with Rococo artists. During the nineteenth century, Berchem’s popularity waned, and today he his relatively unknown among the general public.

The most contested part of Berchem’s biography concerns the Italian influences in his work. Because he is best known for his pastoral landscapes with Italianate hills and sunsets, it was long assumed that he had traveled to Italy sometime at the start of his career. However, there is no proof that he ever traveled across the Alps, and it is more likely that he never visited Italy, instead relying on the works of fellow artists to gain a sense of the Italian landscape. Berchem did make at least one trip abroad; in the 1650s, he traveled to the area of Bentheim Castle in Westphalia with fellow artist Jacob van Ruisdael. 

The Myth of the Nurture of Jupiter

Our starting point to explore Berchem’s mythological and allegorical works is the High panel, which depicts the nurture of Jupiter. This myth seems to have been a favorite of Berchem’s, as he painted many different versions. There are several ancient authors, both Greek and Roman, who recorded this myth, including Callimachus, Pseudo-Apollodorus, and Ovid. These three sources were accessible in printed editions during the seventeenth century, which means Berchem could have had direct access to these texts. Alternatively, he may have accessed the myth through the writings of contemporaries. The myth chronicles how Jupiter was hidden on the island of Crete by his mother, Ops. Jupiter’s father, the Titan Cronus, had already eaten his other children in an attempt to halt a prophecy that had predicted Cronus’s dethroning by his son. After giving birth to Jupiter, Ops handed Cronus a large stone instead of the baby. Cronus proceeded to eat the stone without realizing the switch. Jupiter was subsequently brought to the island of Crete and placed in the care of the local nymphs for safekeeping. One of these nymphs had a goat, who nursed baby Jupiter. According to the various classical texts, either the nymph or her goat was called Amalthea. When the goat broke its horn, Jupiter transformed it into the cornucopia: the horn of plenty. During Jupiter’s stay on Crete, the Curetes, male followers of Ops, danced and made loud noises to drown out the crying of the infant Jupiter so that his father would not find him.

Berchem’s Nurtures of Jupiter: Innovation and Copying Practices

Over the course of more than thirty years, Berchem painted six different versions of the nurture of Jupiter. As time progressed, these paintings became increasingly intertwined, with key motifs and figures present in multiple versions. The two earliest renditions stand somewhat on their own, as they do not include the many cross references present in the later paintings. Berchem’s earliest depiction of the myth is also his largest. Titled The Education of Jupiter, the 79.5-x-103.1-inch canvas hangs in the Mauritshuis in The Hague (fig. 3). The painting is signed “Berrighem,” an early spelling of his last name, and is dated 1648. It depicts baby Jupiter asleep on the lap of a nymph, whose hand alerts us to the presence of the goat beside her. Also depicted are several more animals and a satyr carrying a bucket of milk. This is the only painting for which a related drawing survives (fig. 4). The drawing shows Jupiter sleeping, his head resting upon a bundle of cloth. However, this is not a straightforward preparatory drawing; it is based on a small ivory statue of a sleeping infant by Artus Quellinus the Elder made in 1641 (fig. 5). Berchem’s drawing shows the statue from two different angles. In the rendition at the left, the infant still has the cloth draped over the top of his head, as it is in the ivory, but Berchem removed this detail in the final painted version. Aside from this drawing, there are no other known preparatory drawings for any of the Jupiter paintings. This absence is entirely consistent with Berchem’s wider oeuvre, as he seems not to have made (or at least saved) one-to-one preparatory studies for his paintings. However, this does raise the question as to how, over the course of three decades, Berchem created six paintings with such closely connected motifs and figures.

Berchem’s second rendition, The Infant Jupiter with the Nymphs on Mount Ida (fig. 6), dates to the 1650s and is currently housed at the Wallace Collection in London. This version is the most pastoral, in that the scene is set within a wide Italianate landscape inhabited by many cows and sheep. The most prominent figure wears a striking red dress and stands with her back to us. With her right arm, she points to the valley where the main scene takes place. There Jupiter is accompanied by several nymphs and a satyr. The young god rests upon a white cloth as he suckles directly from the goat. This painting, too, reveals its early date in the spelling of the signature, “CPBerighem.” Compared to the later paintings, these two early works include only the most elemental parts of the myth: the infant Jupiter with the nymph and her goat.

  • Fig. 3. Nicolaes Berchem (Dutch, ca. 1621–1683), The Infancy of Zeus, 1648, oil on canvas, 79 1/2 x 103 inches. Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague, the Netherlands, inventory number 11.

  • Fig. 4. Nicolaes Berchem (Dutch, ca. 1621–1683), Zwei Studien zu einem schlafenden Kind. Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, Inv.-Nr. Z 4459.

  • Fig. 5. Artus Quellinus (Flemish, 1609–1668), Sleeping Infant, 1641, ivory, 1 1/4 x 4 5/8 inches. The Walters Art Museum, Acquired by Henry Walters, 1900, Nr. 71.393.

  • Fig. 6. Nicolaes Berchem (Dutch, ca. 1621–1683), The Infant Jupiter with the Nymphs on Mount Ida, ca. 1650, oil on canvas, 25 x 33 inches. The Wallace Collection, London, UK, acquired by Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford, 1867; bequeathed to the nation by Lady Wallace, 1897, acc. number P256. Photo © The Wallace Collection.

The remaining paintings are dated to the 1660s and 1670s and are more elaborate in their portrayal of the narrative. As we shall see, these works are closely interrelated and show how Berchem’s style evolved from earlier in his career. Since there is no established chronology for these works, we shall start with the work in the High Museum (see fig. 1). The main characters of the myth are depicted at the bottom right, where we see Jupiter suckling from the goat while resting on the lap of a nymph. Beside them sits a man who points toward the child, emphasizing Jupiter as the key figure in the painting. In the back, a group of figures dances around a tree to the sound of a tambourine. These figures might represent the Couretes making loud noises to cover up the sounds of the young Jupiter. These dancing figures will appear in each of Berchem’s later renditions of this subject matter. The figure group at the left includes a lady with a wreath of reeds who leans upon an amphora from which a stream flows across the bottom of the panel. Behind her, a figure dressed in blue presents a cornucopia, which forms the central visual point on the left-hand side of the painting. The winged figure who floats up behind the cornucopia is a unique appearance in Berchem’s paintings of the nurture of Jupiter, and we will discuss a possible interpretation of this figure below.

Fig. 7. Nicolaes Berchem (Dutch, ca. 1621–1683), Nymphs Caring for Jupiter, ca. 1660–1670, oil on panel, 7 x 11 inches. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen (Alte Pinakothek), Munich, Germany, Inventory number 2110.

The painting in the High is most closely related to the version found in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, which has the title Nymphs Caring for Jupiter (fig. 7). Both works are small (the High painting is 8.7 x 9.5 cm, and the Munich panel 7 x 11 inches) and are the only Jupiter paintings on panel. They are painted in a comparable sketch-like manner, with certain areas of the paintings not having the refinement that one might expect from a finished work. In the case of the High panel, it has therefore been speculated that it might have functioned as a sketch. In the center foreground of the Munich painting, we see a nude nymph helping Jupiter to drink from the goat, which he does in a similar manner to the High panel. Rather than milking the goat, Jupiter suckles directly from the animal’s udders and furthermore does so in a rather awkward manner, one that perhaps does not reflect the position of divinity usually accorded to Jupiter. At the top left is a group of figures that includes a satyr, a nymph with a cornucopia, and a nymph with a basket full of produce and flowers. This latter nymph points toward Jupiter and the goat, again emphasizing these figures as the focus of the painting. In the background the dancing Couretes have been included. Although neither painting bears Berchem’s signature, there is no doubt as to their authorship due to their style and their connections to the other Jupiter paintings.

Fig. 8. Nicolas Berchem (Dutch, ca. 1621–1683), The Nurture of Jupiter, oil on canvas, 36 5/8 x 34 7/16 inches. Adam Williams Fine Art LTD, New York, NY.

The next painting is Berchem’s most elaborate. The Nurture of Jupiter (fig. 8) is currently held by Adam Williams Fine Art Ltd. in New York and, with its size of 36.6 x 34.4 inches, is considerably larger than the High panel. The work clearly shows Berchem’s later style, which accounts for the presence of the many putti, flower garlands, and curtain at the top of the painting. The main scene of the suckling Jupiter is located at the bottom left-hand corner. The naked nymph lying to the right gestures toward the god. A flute player is shown from the back as he accompanies the group of dancers in the background. In this version, the dancing figures have been transformed from the Couretes into worshipers of Priapus, around whose statue they circle. Perhaps the most skillful element of this painting is the warm light that shines from between the clouds behind Priapus. The large vase taking up the top right-hand corner of the painting is similar to vases in several other paintings by Berchem.

Fig. 9. Nicolaes Berchem (Dutch, ca. 1621–1683), Education of Jupiter, 1670s, oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 34 1/4 inches. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia, Inventory Number: ГЭ-10089.

It is with the final painting that the cross-references among the works really come into focus, although we have already seen many repeated elements, such as the dancing figures. This painting, Pastoral Scene: Education of Jupiter (fig. 9), is in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Berchem himself once copied the work, and this replica is held by the Prague National Gallery, while a second copy by a different hand can be found in Castello Sforzesco in Milan. The two copies have a horizontal rather than vertical format but have the same composition, with the figures restricted to the top left-hand corner of the canvas. In the bottom right of the Hermitage version we find a large calligraphic signature, “N Berghem.” The two copies of this work in Prague and Milan are unsigned.

The Hermitage work pictures two figures we have already come across in the other paintings. The flute player seen from the back can also be found in the New York version, whereas the nymph with a billowing shawl pointing toward the right is very closely related to the figure at the top left of the Munich panel. Once again included are the wildly dancing nymphs and satyrs. Rather than suckling, Jupiter here is depicted asleep on the lap of a nymph, just as he was in the much earlier Hague version. The right half of the canvas is taken up by a hilly landscape with several woolly sheep and some goats.

As chronicled above, the works exhibit many similarities and interrelationships, but it remains unclear how Berchem was able to create these close connections seemingly without the use of preparatory drawings as records of his designs. The connections suggest that Berchem must indeed have had access either to drawings, now lost, or perhaps to one or more of the paintings. If the High panel functioned as a sketch, Berchem might have kept it for his own use. Although I cannot offer a definitive answer to this question, it is possible to elaborate on the function of the High panel as a sketch and thus discover more about Berchem’s creative working process.

Berchem’s Creative Process: From Myth to Allegory

Fig. 10. Nicolaes Berchem (Dutch, ca. 1621–1683), Allegory of Fertility, 1669, oil on canvas. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia, Inventory Number: ГЭ-1929.

Unlike Berchem’s other paintings depicting the nurture of Jupiter, the High Museum panel includes an additional character: the winged figure. It is this figure that highlights a connection between the High panel and a painting in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, with the title Allegory of Fertility (fig. 10). In the top left-hand corner, this work includes the same winged figure, of undetermined sex, in a comparable pose, although it has gained a multitude of flowers. The Hermitage painting contains many additional elements that connect to the myth of Jupiter and to the High version in particular. In the center of the painting, a woman presenting a cornucopia is closely related to the cornucopia-bearing figure in the High panel: she has the same posture and a similarly cut garment. The Hermitage work also includes a woman milking a goat while a young boy peeks over her shoulder; these figures could refer to the nurture of Jupiter. Behind this grouping, two figures dance exuberantly in a manner reminiscent of the Couretes. To the painting’s theme of fertility Berchem added further elements, such as the group of satyrs transporting buckets of grapes on the back of a donkey at the far right, as well as the source of water in the lower right corner.

Despite their different foci, myth versus allegory, I believe that the High painting served as a study for the Hermitage allegory. The relationship between these two paintings can provide us with new information on Berchem’s practice of turning mythological subjects into complex allegories. On the other hand, it also allows us to consider Berchem’s mythological paintings as containing allegorical elements.

Annemarie Stefes has already noted Berchem’s use of myths as preparatory subjects for his more complex allegorical works. She connected several drawings with mythological subjects to Berchem’s painted Allegory of the Expansion of Amsterdam (fig. 11). Berchem used his drawings of The Triumph of Amphitrite (fig. 12) and Psyche Received by Jupiter (fig. 13) as figure studies for the final painting. He reused the figures’ poses in both drawings but changed their identities. Stefes found that a similar process of creation preceded the painting of Berchem’s Virtue Conquers Violence. We can now conclude that Berchem proceeded in a comparable manner when preparing for the Allegory of Fertility, but rather than using preparatory drawings, it seems that Berchem used the small High panel to create figures that could be repurposed.

  • Fig. 11. Nicolaes Berchem (Dutch, ca. 1621–1683), Allegory of the Expansion of Amsterdam, 1653–1673, oil on canvas. Amsterdam Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, bequest of A. van der Hoop, SA 2079.

  • Fig. 12. Nicolaes Berchem (Dutch, ca. 1621–1683), The Triumph of Amphitrite. Bremen Kunsthalle, Inv. no. 1974.

  • Fig. 13. Nicolaes Berchem (Dutch, ca. 1621–1683), Psyche Received by Jupiter. Bremen Kunsthalle, Inv. no. 1997.

By establishing this connection between the paintings in the High and the Hermitage, it becomes possible to interpret the allegorical elements in the two paintings. The allegory of the Heritage painting revolves around the theme of bounty and fertility. This is most obvious in the harvesting of grapes and the centrally placed cornucopia. The figures lifted from the myth of the nurture of Jupiter can also be brought to bear upon this idea, as the myth recalls the nourishment and raising of the infant god. This connection between the myth and the work’s overall subject is amplified by the fact that the cornucopia was created by Jupiter when the horn of his nursing goat broke off. Thus, the winged figure in the Hermitage painting must also relate to the theme of fertility and could either be a personification of fertility or depict a more specific character, perhaps one of the winds. The winds were often represented as winged, and Zephyr, the west wind, was particularly associated with spring and fertility. The winged figure in the High panel is likely to carry a similar identity. Its placement exactly above the cornucopia emphasizes its connection to the concept of fertility.

Once we become aware of Berchem’s association between the myth and the concept of fertility, his other Jupiter paintings reveal further allegorical references to fertility. In the Nurture of Jupiter version currently in New York, the dancing figures in the back are more explicitly connected to the worship of Priapus rather than to the Couretes. As Priapus was a god of fertility, this is a fitting addition and play on the subject matter, as the figures now can function both as protectors of Jupiter as well as representatives of a fertility cult.

Another such allegorical element is the presence of a water source depicted as originating from an amphora. The amphorae are located in the lower corners of the Allegory of Fertility as well as the High panel. In the Jupiter paintings in Munich, London, and St. Petersburg (as well as the one in Prague), running springs are depicted without the inclusion of amphorae. These springs of water could be allegorically interpreted as sources of fertility. Nature is sustained by fresh water, as Jupiter is nourished by the milk of the goat. Finally, the myth of the nurture of Jupiter itself has been a fertile source of inspiration for the artist.

Condition of the High Museum Painting

Besides conducting historical research into the subject of the Nurture of Jupiter, I also investigated the current condition of the panel and its painted surface to discover how the painting’s current appearance might differ from its original look. Fortunately, this painting has been quite well preserved and, once cleaned, will closely resemble its original appearance. Most of the technical information on this work was collected with the aid of High Museum painting conservator Larry Shutts and Michael C. Carlos Museum object conservator Renée Stein.

Berchem’s seventeenth-century painting is supported by a small panel, which consists of two horizontal pieces of wood. The joining of these two pieces is visible on the front, especially in UV light, just above the figures’ heads. The panel is relatively thin and has a shallow bevel, with the center of the panel having a greater thickness than the sides. Around the edges, thin batons have been added. The wood grain of these batons has an opposing direction to that of the two panels. The batons were added to counteract warping of the two panel parts. This has proved to be successful, as almost no warping has occurred. At first it was unclear whether the batons had been added before or after Berchem painted the panel, but closer inspection has revealed that they were included from the outset. Since on the painted face of the panel it can be seen that the original painted image continues onto the batons. Since the panel is made from two pieces, it is logical that additional measures were taken to prevent warping, which would have had destructive consequences for the image in the area where the two pieces join. Considering the painting’s small size, it is remarkable that the panel consists of two pieces of wood rather than one. It is possible that the panel started out as a single piece and consequently was broken in half. Further research into the wood grain of the two pieces could offer more information. Over the course of its history, the back of the panel has gained a number of auction and ownership marks. These include a black stenciled number, a red wax seal, and a sticker identifying the panel’s painter and subject matter. The black number and wax seal might tell us more about the provenance of this object, but they have not yet been traced, as there is no centralized database nor publication that collects information on such ownership marks.

As might be expected from a 350-year-old artwork, the painting has had several rounds of cleaning and varnishing. The last treatment of this object occurred before the High Museum acquired the painting in 1980. Since the last cleaning, the varnish has yellowed. Certain areas seem to have been cleaned more recently or thoroughly than others; the figures’ hands and faces, for example, have been cleaned more than the dark areas in the background. Traces of older, yellow varnish also can be seen with the naked eye in low-lying grooves, from which it was not removed during cleaning. These are evident, for example, in the grooves in the coat of the central goat. It is possible that only certain important parts of the painting were cleaned, rather than the whole, as a quick and cheap method of sprucing up the painting in preparation for sale. However, this selective cleaning has resulted in a color imbalance, which is not reflective of the painting’s original atmosphere. More positive is the survival of the glazes in certain details, such as the cornucopia. Glazes are often early losses after a rigorous cleaning, and their survival indicates that the image has generally been well preserved. If the painting were to be cleaned, it would result in a closer approximation of the original colors of the image, although certain colors will have permanently changed over time. Cleaning the painting should, however, result in an improved tonal balance.

There are several areas where the paint has been retouched. One of these repainted areas is the bottom left-hand corner—this spot is the most logical location for a signature, so there is a slight chance that if the painting were cleaned a signature might appear. An area of the sky has been repainted in the Italian tratteggio technique, whereby the restorer introduces small, parallel brushstrokes in an attempt to complete the image without mimicking the artist’s brushwork. This difference allows the viewer simultaneously to determine which parts are original and to enjoy an uninterrupted image. Cesare Brandi developed the tratteggio technique at the Istituto Centrale di Restauro in Rome in the second half of the 1940s, which means that the patch of sky in the High panel was restored after this date. The presence of more than one different restoration technique suggests that the painting was in the care of different conservators at different points in the object’s history.

Infrared photographs of the painting were made in an attempt to find an underdrawing. From the resulting photographs it was not possible to see any underdrawings, although there seems to be something in the lower right-hand corner, which could possibly be a signature. Instead of making preparatory drawings, Berchem often made underdrawings on the ground; these can be seen with the naked eye in some of his other works but not on this panel. A close comparison between the High work and the panel in Munich could offer information about Berchem’s standard working method on panel; however, such research would be more fruitful if both works first were cleaned and examined by a conservator.

—Emma C. de Jong, Emory University, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Graduate Fellowship Program in Object-Centered Curatorial Research, 2017

Selected Bibliography

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