Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 29 1/2 in
Provenance : France, private collection
Literature : Unpublished
According to the biography by Filippo Baldinucci we can see that this artist’s life can be summarized
as a long quest that took him from Denmark, where he was born, to Italy, and finally to Rome, during
which he seized every possible opportunity even the slightest one to work1. It was an adventurous life, filled with learning experiences – as we can see from the two years (1642-1644) he spent working in Rembrandt’s workshop in Amsterdam when he was eighteen, as recorded by Baldinucci. Then, after having worked for an art dealer, Henrick Uylenburgh, he embarked on his independent career, with his home as his studio (circa 1647-1651). He departed for Italy, crossed the Tyrol and arrived in Venice in 1651. During his travels between Venice, Bergamo and Milan, he distinguished himself in the most diverse types of painting, portraits in particular – including one of Queen Christina of Sweden when she was in Ravenna – as well as many religious subjects. Then he decided to make the final journey down to Rome on 31 March 1656 when he was around 33 years old. The following year he married his landlord’s eldest daughter, converted to Roman Catholicism and settled permanently in the Eternal City. The theme of this painting recurs throughout the career of this Danish artist, and he developed it in several variations, from a single figure to compositions with several as in the Grape-picker and Family [ Vendemmiatore con famiglia] (whereabouts unknown) “creating works that were unusual and delightful to the eye” which, Baldinucci tells us, decorated the walls in the homes of the great Roman and Florentine families2.
The hitherto unpublished version displayed here presents a novelty: the grape-picker returning from the vineyard after a long day’s work lifts his hat as if to greet the painter (or the viewer) as he passes by. This device gives the painting the spontaneity of an ante litteram snapshot. All the other versions of the theme, that also differ as to the perspective from which the models are shown, depict the farmers in another pose: hat in hand and held low so that it may be half-concealed by the bottom edge of the canvas. Our grape-picker, captured with a slight sotto in su effect, that is from below, recalls Keilhau’s hunters who are often portrayed as half-length figures with a shouldered shotgun. Here, instead of the gun there is a stick with a basket of grapes – we can see the leaves – hanging from the end.
For the iconographic sources, Minna Heimbürger suggests that Keilhau may have been inspired by paintings of the Flight into Egypt where Saint Joseph is depicted carrying a stick, with a bundle hanging from it, on his shoulders3. This hypothesis is particularly interesting because it emphasizes the sometimes totally unexpected dialogue between religious and secular paintings which, in this specific case, is a genre painting. In addition to portraying a humble person during part of his busy day, the subject could also be an allegory of Autumn or the Earth. The figure that stands out against a sky filled with moving clouds which, like the half-bare tree, herald the coolness of an early fall, is surprising for its psychological insight.
The subject’s lively, penetrating gaze, his skin tanned from many hours working outdoors, the hint of a vague smile that disappears into the unkempt beard are portrayed effectively through swift, expressive brushstrokes. The details of the clothing are rendered with the same ease, be it the wool on the sheepskin jacket or the colourful sash around his waist. The harmony of the blues and brown tones transform this instant of reality into a lively and truly beautiful painting. As Baldinucci pointed out, we too can see that even though he respected the “natural”, Keilhau worked quickly and easily and did not retouch his paintings. Our grape-picker is clear proof of his fluency of invention that was supported by a free alla prima technique.
The tonal unity reveals the artist’s concerns and may be related to the Boy with a Vase of Roses [ Ragazzo con vaso di rose] (Italy, private collection) which, because of its Lombard character, Minna Heimbürger has dated around 1654 -1655, the time of the artist’s sojourn in Bergamo4.
1. Filippo Baldinucci, Notizie dei professori del Disegno da Cimabue in qua, 1847, V, pp. 365-374.
2. Minna Heimbürger, Bernardo Keilhau detto Monsù Bernardo, Rome, 1988, no. 9 (Göteborg), 42 (Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum), 140 (whereabouts unknown) and 139, and Filippo Baldinucci, op. cit., pp. 372-373.
3. Minna Heimbürger, op. cit., p. 55.
4. Minna Heimbürger, op. cit., p. 184, no 65.