We know of around twenty night scenes by the Delft artist Leonaert Bramer painted on slate, a highly unusual support. This little painting is one of them. It depicts a group of herdsmen around a campfire, watching over a herd of cows. A young man with a partially bared torso sits by the fire. Next to him stands an old woman, and an old man under a leafless tree bends over his walking stick. Needing to water their animals, the three have made halt near a small pond, partially visible in the foreground. In the past a number of attempts have been made to identify the picture as a scene from Greek or Roman literature.1 It seems more likely, however, that Bramer here depicts nothing but an everyday – albeit rather southerly – tableau.
Particularly interesting here is that the artist has allowed his slate support to play an important role in the image: the sky area has been left entirely unpainted, so that the slate itself represents the night-time heavens. The painting is unsigned, but this typical use of the support and the loose brushwork make it easily recognisable as a work by Bramer. Wichmann, who wrote the catalogue raisonné of Bramer’s work in 1923, was unaware of the painting, but it was included in the Bramer exhibitions that took place in Milwaukee in 1992-93 and Delft in 1994.2 Thanks to the picture’s excellent condition one can easily see how the artist created his light reflections with a few simple strokes, while in the shadowed areas indicating the contours with touches of black. The virtuoso construction of the forms in this painting recalls Bramer’s Herdsmen by a campfire (private collection, Milwaukee) and Resting soldiers (Museum Bredius, The Hague), which is dated 1626 (fig. 1).3
Bramer was born in 1596 in Delft. In 1615 he travelled via France to Italy, which became his home for some 13 years. By 1628 he had returned to his native town, and it was there that he spent the rest of his life.4 It is generally assumed that Bramer painted his night scenes on slate while in Rome. This, however, is at the very least uncertain, as he could have had access to the material in the Netherlands as well, where it was often used for roofing churches.
The technique of painting on slate was unknown in the Netherlands, so that Bramer must have become acquainted with it while in Italy. He may have been inspired by two artists from Verona, Pasquale Ottino and Marcantonio Bassetti, who painted on slate in a similar style (fig. 2).5 He could have met Bassetti in Rome. All the same, Bramer developed his own personal idiom in his night scenes, resulting in his Italian nickname, ‘Leonardo della Notte’.6