Dutch artist Jan Philip Koelman received his art training in The Hague then travelled to Rome where he joined his younger brother, Johan Hendrik, who had already set himself up there as a painter. The pair threw themselves into the cosmopolitan community of artists. The elder Koelman became a passionate advocate of Italian nationalism, and in 1849 took an active part in the defence of the Roman Republic under the leadership of Garibaldi.
Koelman is now remembered primarily for his memoirs, Memorie Romane, published in two volumes in 1869. These give a colourful account of the turbulent years of the Risorgimento, and are of special interest for the fact of having been written from the point of view of a non-Italian, anti-Papist, pro-independence artist observer.
The latter part of Koelman’s career was spent as a designer and sculptor of numerous official commissions in the Netherlands. He served as director of the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague from 1870 to 1888.
Koelman’s watercolour Italian girl, one of numerous depicting peasants of the Roman Campagna, was almost certainly painted during his residence in Rome between 1844 and 1857.
The image of the Italian peasant woman, or contadina, became a popular subject in art from the 1830s onwards. For many European painters working in the 19th century, the alluring picturesqueness of the contadina remained the primary motivation behind their compositions, rather than the grimness of rural existence or the ambition to portray the peasant’s mythic attachment to the soil à la Jean-François Millet.
The essentially idyllic approach to peasant painting – often sanitised and sentimentalised – can be illustrated by Koelman’s finely executed watercolour. Seated in an indeterminate locale under the bright Italian sun, the wholesome, rosy-cheeked maiden engages us directly with the tenderness of her expression. Her colourful folk costume and jewellery have been carefully rendered by the artist, along with the basket of fruit placed at her feet.
Adapted from Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017