The expansive street scene with plentiful staffage that unfurls before us here is flanked on the left by a hilltop town and at its foot some mighty ruins attesting to the glories of times past. Framing the work on the right, by contrast, are just a few isolated trees and a wall stretching away into the distance. Especially remarkable, given this composition, is that even at first glance, the viewer’s gaze is ineluctably drawn deep into the painting. To redirect our attention to what is happening in the foreground, therefore, the artist turns the sunlight streaming down through the layers of cloud into a diaphanous film of light that backlights the dust kicked up off the street. There, hurrying towards us, is a large flock of sheep that functions as a link between background and foreground. Herding the sheep on the right is a shepherd riding a donkey, who appears to be looking askance at a girl carrying a water jar on the left, who is being butted by one of his errant beasts. The cistern on the left that is as much a water source as a place to stand and gossip provides the painter with another opportunity to lend expression to his fascination with the lives of Italian country folk. The staffage around the cistern, however, is not just part of the narrative; it also contributes to the lighting effects, as is evident in the play of the light and dark on the women’s costumes. Part of what makes this work so interesting is that it shows that Achenbach has largely overcome the influence of Johann Wilhelm Schirmer, which just a few years previously had been clearly apparent in his love of detail rendered in very thin, evenly applied paint and use of set-piece vegetation for compositional purposes.1 This is especially worth emphasising given that the painting was produced about a year before Achenbach’s third and most formative trip to Italy in 1857. That experience was to have a crucial impact on what Potthoff has called the “personal style”2 that would henceforth dominate his whole oeuvre. What is striking about our painting, which comes at the end of his early period, is the presence of numerous elements that following that third momentous trip to Italy would become enduring features of the artist’s mature style. Already in evidence, for example, is the as yet rudimentary principle of diagonal composition, to which the painter would have recourse in many of his Italianate works after 1857. Another new departure is the thicker paint and the ever greater focus on its materiality rather than its function as a way of generating the illusion of surface textures.
The painting thus signals Achenbach’s coming transition from the early works, while at the same time looking ahead to that style of painting and that understanding of art that was to develop during his third trip to Italy of 1857 and that was to have a lasting impact on his whole oeuvre.