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Bartholomeus Breen­bergh, Dutch, 1598-1657: Cliffs, Pos­si­bly near Brac­ciano, c. 1625 

This strik­ing image depicts cliffs on a road near Brac­ciano, a town north­west of Rome famous for its vol­canic lake. A small chapel or shrine appears at the top of the cliffs, a com­mon fea­ture along such roads. This one may have been reached by a path lead­ing up the deep chan­nel to the right of the structure. 

Bartholomeus Breen­bergh was among the first land­scape spe­cial­ists from the Dutch Repub­lic to trav­el to Italy, remain­ing there from 1619 to 1629. Togeth­er with his con­tem­po­rary Cor­nelis van Poe­len­burch, he pio­neered a draw­ing tech­nique using broad, some­times sharply defined areas of wash next to the blank white area of the paper to cre­ate dra­mat­ic effects of sun­light. His inno­v­a­tive tech­nique influ­enced younger artists like Jan de Biss­chop and Con­stan­ti­jn Huy­gens II.

Along with his slight­ly older com­pa­tri­ot, Cor­nelis van Poe­len­burch (1594/95 – 1667), Bartholomeus Breen­bergh was one of the first land­scape spe­cial­ists from the Unit­ed Provinces that we know for cer­tain trav­eled to Italy. He is record­ed in Rome sev­er­al times begin­ning in 1619 and appears to have returned to the Nether­lands around 1629 where he set­tled in Ams­ter­dam.1

Once back, he con­tin­ued his career as a painter (and later as a mer­chant), often employ­ing his expe­ri­ences in Italy as sub­jects for his sub­se­quent paint­ings and draw­ings. Breen­bergh and Van Poe­len­burch, whose draw­ings are some­times dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish from each other, pio­neered a remark­able new style of drafts­man­ship. They sought to express the strong effects of sun­light using broad and some­times sharply applied areas of wash, sub­sum­ing the line work, and vivid­ly defin­ing radi­ant sur­faces using the white reserve of the paper.2

This style would have a deep impact on artists in their ambit, most notably on the French artist Claude Lor­rain (1604/05 – 1682), but also on sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions of Dutch artists such as Jan de Biss­chop (1628 – 1671) and Con­stan­ti­jn Huy­gens II (1628 – 1697).3

More than 200 of Breen­bergh’s draw­ings sur­vive, most of which depict Ital­ian sub­jects.4

The present work bears an Ital­ian water­mark and must date to his Roman peri­od, most like­ly in the mid-1620s when Breen­bergh first exper­i­ment­ed with his dra­mat­ic new style, shown to great effect here. The large size of this sheet nev­er­the­less belies the fact that it was sig­nif­i­cant­ly cropped at some point. Franklin Robin­son point­ed out that the Peck draw­ing relates close­ly to at least three other sheets, two by Breen­bergh him­self, in the col­lec­tions of the Alberti­na Muse­um and the J. Paul Getty Muse­um, and one by Paul Bril (1553/54 – 1626) in the Lou­vre Fig. 8.1 Fig. 8.2 Fig. 8.3.5

Bartholomeus Breenbergh, Italian Mountain Landscape.
Fig. 8.1

Bartholomeus Breen­bergh, Ital­ian Moun­tain Land­scape. Black chalk, brush in brown, gray-brown, and rose wash­es, and blue wash in the sky, 379 × 543 mm. Vien­na, Alberti­na, inv. no. 9369.

Bartholomeus Breenbergh, Landscape with a Road below Cliffs near Bracciano.
Fig. 8.2

Bartholomeus Breen­bergh, Land­scape with a Road below Cliffs near Brac­ciano. Black chalk with black and gray wash, 409 × 562 mm. Los Ange­les, J. Paul Getty Muse­um, inv. no. 2020.34.

Paul Bril, Mountain near Bracciano.
Fig. 8.3

Paul Bril, Moun­tain near Brac­ciano. Black chalk with brush in brown and gray wash, 283 × 468 mm. Paris, Musée du Lou­vre, inv. no. 19.771.

These draw­ings reveal what was once the full extent of the Peck com­po­si­tion, with a road run­ning along the base of the cliffs lead­ing into the moun­tain­ous dis­tance. The now off-cen­ter cen­ter­fold in the present sheet also makes clear that it once close­ly matched the actu­al size of these three other sheets, though sev­er­al com­po­si­tion­al dif­fer­ences in the fore­grounds and back­grounds are easy to spot, and they vary sig­nif­i­cant­ly in style. 

The obvi­ous ques­tion aris­es as to which draw­ing came first. When com­pared to the two other sheets by Breen­bergh, there are good rea­sons to assume that the present work was the pro­to­type, espe­cial­ly since its more imme­di­ate and direct impres­sion indi­cates a draw­ing made on-site. The draw­ing in the Alberti­na has a slight­ly stiffer appear­ance and employs a broad­er range of tones and ink types typ­i­cal of a stu­dio ver­sion. For the Peck sheet, Breen­bergh most­ly used a sin­gle type of brown ink, with the few addi­tions in gray ink (notably on the large rock face at right) per­haps added later. The Getty’s ver­sion, which bears an authen­tic sig­na­ture, is high­ly fin­ished but dif­fer­ent in style alto­geth­er. Its soft­ly mod­u­lat­ed light­ing uni­fies the com­po­si­tion and reduces the crag­gy nature of the rock face, which in the Alberti­na and Peck draw­ings is shaper-edged and more obvi­ous­ly the heat­bear­ing protagonist. 

Breen­bergh’s other large-scale Ital­ian sub­jects also sur­vive in two or three drawn ver­sions, sug­gest­ing that the artist returned to the same sub­ject repeat­ed­ly, unafraid to mod­i­fy the style or fur­ther work up the com­po­si­tion.6

As Stijn Alsteens point­ed out by study­ing the water­marks of two near­ly iden­ti­cal ver­sions of Breen­bergh’s View of Tivoli, he may have made some of these repli­cas years apart, even decades after he had returned to Ams­ter­dam.7

Since the water­mark on the present sheet makes its Ital­ian ori­gin clear, the same dis­parate time span might be the case here, if he made the ver­sions in the Alberti­na and Getty after his return.8

It is pos­si­ble that Breen­bergh made a reg­u­lar prac­tice of repeat­ing his Ital­ian sub­jects back home for a ready col­lec­tors’ mar­ket there.9

The draw­ing by Paul Bril in the Lou­vre com­pli­cates the story fur­ther Fig. 8.3. Bril suc­cess­ful­ly spent his career in Rome, becom­ing the doyen of Dutch and Flem­ish painters there, sev­er­al of whom he employed in his work­shop, includ­ing Breen­bergh. We know this from Breen­bergh’s own tes­ti­mo­ny, given dur­ing a 1653 paint­ings appraisal, that he spent around seven years work­ing for Bril” (thus from Breen­bergh’s arrival in Rome in 1619 until Bril’s death in 1626), and fur­ther that he him­self had copied var­i­ous things of his in Rome.“10

While Breen­bergh was refer­ring to the copy­ing of paint­ings in this state­ment, it cer­tain­ly points to the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the present draw­ing is a copy of Bril’s Lou­vre draw­ing. If so, it would be one of two exam­ples that have come to light.11

The wash-inten­sive nature of the present sheet, how­ev­er, advances the con­cep­tion beyond any­thing that Bril had pre­vi­ous­ly attempt­ed. One won­ders (as Peter Schat­born did) whether in a rever­sal of roles the young Breen­bergh may have proven an influ­ence on the aged Bril in this case.12

The latter’s sheet in the Lou­vre demon­strates a cer­tain loos­en­ing of his style, but his notion of the cliffs remains reserved, treat­ing the rocks as a large organ­ic mass rather than the stony recep­tors of intense sun­light found in the Peck draw­ing. Anoth­er pos­si­bil­i­ty, as already sug­gest­ed by Louisa Wood Ruby, is that this pair of draw­ings result­ed from a sketch­ing trip that Bril and Breen­bergh took togeth­er.13

Sketch­ing from the same spot was not an uncom­mon prac­tice among land­scape artists in the era, and Alan Chong has fur­ther point­ed out that some of Van Poe­len­burch’s com­po­si­tion­al­ly sim­i­lar draw­ings are like­wise indica­tive of joint sketch­ing excur­sions with Breen­bergh.14

In either case, the artist’s prac­tice of mak­ing fin­ished auto­graph repli­cas of his own draw­ings seems to have been inspired by Bril, who was one of the first land­scape drafts­men to do so on a reg­u­lar basis.15

This draw­ing was pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished as depict­ing a loca­tion near Bomar­zo, but the Get­ty’s ver­sion bears an inscrip­tion in an early hand on the verso, Stra­da di Brac­ciano (Road of Brac­ciano), which is adopt­ed here in the title.16

Both Bomar­zo and Brac­ciano are plau­si­ble loca­tions given Breen­bergh’s rela­tion­ship with Paolo Gior­dano II Orsi­ni (1591 – 1656), a major patron of the arts who inher­it­ed the duke­dom of Brac­ciano in 1615.17

His siz­able duchy just north of Rome also includ­ed Bomar­zo, with its famous Gar­den of Bomar­zo (the Park of Mon­sters”) full of odd, grotesque, and humor­ous six­teenth-cen­tu­ry sculp­ture. Many of Breen­bergh’s most sig­nif­i­cant Ital­ian draw­ings were clear­ly made while trav­el­ing in Orsini’s duchy. Some depict sculp­tures in the Gar­den of Bomar­zo, while oth­ers are more clear­ly set in and around Brac­ciano and its major lake, which lies about sixty kilo­me­ters to the south.18

One of his draw­ings actu­al­ly depicts the duke and his entourage bathing in the lake, sug­gest­ing that Breen­bergh accom­pa­nied Orsi­ni while he trav­eled around his lands.19

Breen­bergh’s draw­ing of the Torre di Chia (near Bomar­zo) in the École des Beaux-Arts bears a near­ly iden­ti­cal water­mark as the present sheet, and it was also the sub­ject of one or more repli­ca draw­ings by the artist.20

While it might rea­son­ably be assumed that the present work was made on Orsi­ni lands, the exact loca­tion remains unknown, even if set on a road near Brac­ciano. Robin­son sug­gest­ed that the struc­ture on top of the cliff is a por­ti­co to an estate (with a large shade with a sun­burst design), but it seems more like­ly a small chapel or shrine of some sort that one would typ­i­cal­ly find dot­ting such roads.21

The deep chan­nel in the rocks lead­ing up to the right side of the struc­ture might con­tain a path or steps to make it acces­si­ble from the road below.

End Notes

  1. For an overview of Breen­bergh’s life and relat­ed doc­u­ments, see Nalis 1972; more sum­mar­i­ly in Roeth­lis­berg­er 1981, 1 – 5; and Ams­ter­dam 2001, 66.

  2. The most exten­sive treat­ment of Breen­bergh’s draw­ings to date remains Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969; see also P. Schat­born in Ams­ter­dam 2001, 66 – 73; and the remarks in Alsteens 2015. For Van Poe­len­burch’s draw­ings, see Chong 1987, which also attempts to dis­en­tan­gle a few of his draw­ings from Breen­bergh’s oeuvre.

  3. Roeth­lis­berg­er 1981, 19 – 20.

  4. Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969, 1, esti­mat­ing about 200 draw­ings (three-quar­ters of which are treat­ed in this mono­graph, not intend­ed as com­plete); reit­er­at­ed in Roeth­lis­berg­er 1981, 5, but the num­ber might now be slight­ly higher.

  5. For the Alberti­na and Getty draw­ings, see Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969, nos. 35, 35 (the lat­ter then in a pri­vate col­lec­tion). For the Bril, idem. no. 33; and Ruby 1999, no. 100. The rela­tion­ship between the Peck draw­ing and these sheets was dis­cussed ear­li­er by F. Robin­son in Chapel Hill, Itha­ca & Worces­ter 1999 – 2001, no. 2. Robin­son also point­ed to a por­tion of the left-hand side of the com­po­si­tion repeat­ed in a draw­ing given to Breen­bergh, present where­abouts unknown, found in a deal­er cat­a­logue (Houthakker 1969, no. 6); the attri­bu­tion of the lat­ter seems ques­tion­able but can only be judged from the reproduction.

  6. See Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969, 9, nos. 13 – 14, 99 – 100; Alsteens 2015; and Chica­go 2019 – 20, no. 90 (repro­duc­ing the left half of Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969, no. 104).

  7. Alsteens 2015.

  8. The his­tor­i­cal mount­ing of the Alberti­na sheet frus­trates the study of any water­mark that might be present; my thanks to Eva Michel for check­ing this in person.

  9. As remarked in Alsteens 2015, 448, who notes that the dat­ing of other draw­ings set in Italy should prob­a­bly be recon­sid­ered as well. Roeth­lis­berg­er had assumed that the major­i­ty of Breen­bergh’s sur­viv­ing draw­ings were made in Italy since they depict­ed Ital­ian sub­jects, but this might not actu­al­ly be the case; see Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969, 2.

  10. Bredius 1889, 43.

  11. See Depauw 1989; Depauw 1992; Depauw 1997; and Ruby 1999, no. 101.

  12. Ams­ter­dam 2001, 66.

  13. Ruby 1999, 153, note 671 (in ref­er­ence to cat. 100).

  14. Chong 1987, 10.

  15. For Bril’s auto­graph repli­cas, see Ruby 1999, 28 – 29 (“copy ver­sions”); and for the prac­tice gen­er­al­ly, see Ruby 2013.

  16. The con­fu­sion appears to have orig­i­nat­ed with Roeth­lis­berg­er, who first noted the draw­ing with­out ven­tur­ing a title (Roeth­lis­berg­er 1985, 65) short­ly after it appeared on the mar­ket, then sup­plied a brief descrip­tion (Roeth­lis­berg­er 1991, 93, under Some newly appeared draw­ings”) with the title A Cliff (near Bomar­zo?). This may have been a slip of the pen, since he knew about the inscrip­tion on the verso of the Getty sheet and had cat­a­logued both relat­ed draw­ings as Land­schaft (bei Brac­ciano?); see Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969, nos. 34, 35.

  17. Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969Breen­bergh’s seem­ing­ly vital rela­tion­ship with Orsi­ni is a topic that has only light­ly been treat­ed in the lit­er­a­ture to date, but see Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969, 8; and Schat­born in Ams­ter­dam 2001, 67. See also the impor­tant recent study, Amen­dola 2014, which pub­lish­es for the first time a list of draw­ings found in the Orsi­ni archives, includ­ing nine by Breen­bergh (idem, 149 – 50, under foli­um 5 recto). The present draw­ing, being the only one of this sub­ject on Ital­ian paper, might pos­si­bly be the Casa sopra una mon­tagnio­la list­ed there­in, although this descrip­tion applies just as well (if not bet­ter) to a draw­ing in Berlin (Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969, no. 20; and Bock & Rosen­berg 1930, no. 5436).

  18. See Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969, 8, for an account of these works. For Breen­bergh in the Gar­dens of Bomar­zo, see also Kool­ber­gen 1984, 52 – 65.

  19. Ams­ter­dam 2001Ams­ter­dam, Rijksmu­se­um, inv. no. rpt-1967 – 73; Ams­ter­dam 2001, 67 (fi g. D); and Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969, no. 107.

  20. Inv. no. Mas. 1576; Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969, no. 14 (and no. 13 for relat­ed draw­ing in St. Peters­burg); see also Paris & Ajac­cio 2014 – 15, no. 16. A third ver­sion on the art mar­ket was posit­ed, per­haps incor­rect­ly, as the pro­to­type; see R. Verdi in Birm­ing­ham & The Hague 2004 – 05, no. 12.

  21. Chapel Hill, Itha­ca & Worces­ter 1999 – 2001, 39.