Born in Haarlem, Nicolaes Berchem was the son of renowned still-life painter Pieter Claesz., who is also listed as his teacher in guild records of 1634. Berchem is best known as a key exponent of Dutch Italianate painting and member of the second generation of artists in the Netherlands who traveled to southern Europe. According to his biographer Arnold Houbraken, Berchem may have gone to Italy twice, although the first of these purported trips in the first half of the 1640s with Jan Baptist Weenix is doubtful, while another from 1650-1653 is more likely (L. Harwood, Inspired by Italy, exh. cat., London, 2002, p. 131). In any event, Berchem was clearly aware of his talented peers -- Pieter van Laer, Jan Both and Jan Asselijn among them -- producing paintings that captured the golden light, arid landscape and classical ruins associated with Italy.
This signed canvas is a quintessential example of Berchem's Italianate views. The sky is soft pale blue swathed in fluffy white clouds, while at left a brilliant sunset of pinks, oranges and yellows emerges, its golden light reflected on the clouds above. Providing a contrast to the pale sky are the darker blues and browns of the landscape below, punctuated only by the primary colors of the young woman in the foreground. Sitting barefooted atop a donkey, this figure wears billowing, vivid garments and extends her arms gracefully towards the animals that surround her, embodying the idealized, slightly exotic pastoral existence so popular among Dutch collectors in the second half of the 17th century.