This is one of the most famous paintings in the Mauritshuis. What makes The Bull so special is the fact that Potter painted something as ordinary as a bull on such a grand scale – which had never been done before. And despite this large size, he paid great attention to the smallest details, such as the lark in the sky, the sunshine on the meadow, the flies on the bull’s back and the cow’s whiskers. This made the painting the epitome of Dutch naturalistic painting.
The farmer stands behind the fence watching his livestock. He makes a rather unkempt impression, with his ragged hat and torn clothing. Potter has even included some stray hairs on his shoulder. Anyone who learned to read using an old-fashioned leesplank (ABC board) would probably immediately recognise the farmer – he provided the inspiration for Teun, one of the characters.
‘Potter’s Bull’, as this picture is popularly known, is without doubt one of the most widely discussed works of art from the Dutch seventeenth century. Its vast size, unpretentious subject and meticulously realistic details have attracted both admiration and criticism. After the occupying French forces removed it from Prince William V’s picture gallery in The Hague and carries it off to the Louvre, the fame of The Bull took an almost mythic proportions. Surrounded by Raphaels and Titians looted from Italy, this colossal painting became a talking-point for the public in Paris and far beyond. It was praised above all for the astonishing realism of the animals and their rustic setting. Potter was hailed as the master of the breathtakingly deceptive imitation of reality. Even when the picture was returned to The Hague in 1815, accompanied by a military escort and with the city’s bells pealing, it continued to capture the imagination. After the middle of the nineteenth century, however, praise gave way to carping, and art critics accused Potter of a superficial realism and lack of imagination.
Both admirers and critics have always assumed that Potter’s bull was modelled on a real animal, which he portrayed as realistically as possible. But how realistic is The Bull? At first sight it appears to be a yearling, but then one notes that the dewlap below the neck and chest is too large for a bull of that age. The horns, too, are more developed, and indicate an animal around two years old. It has six large, adult teeth, which is common for a beat aged between three and four. Secondly, the structure of the body looks unbalanced. The forequarters (head, neck, withers and shoulders) are powerful and well-developed. The hindquarters, on the other hand, are not very muscled, and the haunches are rather flat. The animal is standing in an odd, slightly distorted pose. Its hindquarters are shown obliquely from the rear, the central part of the body is parallel to the picture plane, while the chest ad forelegs are again seen slightly from the back.
It can be concluded that Potter ‘compiled’ his bull from various studies of bulls of different ages. By selecting the best of his preparatory studies he endeavored to depict the animal as convincingly as possible, so much so that the final result surpasses reality. This was a not uncommon method with seventeenth-century artists. Painters like Jan van Goyen and Salomon van Ruysdael, for instance, turned their sketches of actual locations into imagined landscapes which at first sight cannot be distinguished from reality.
Despite the fact that the bull in Potter’s painting is not the depiction of a real animal, the viewer does get the impression of looking at a photographic reproduction of reality. That illusion is created by the profusion of realistic details, like the curly hair in the animal’s neck, the saliva dripping from its mouth, the bare patches on its rump, the circling flies, the hoofprints in the mud, and the cowpat in the right foreground.
The bull is shown in the company of four other animals and a farmer. The hide of the cow reclining against the tree is remarkably smooth compared to the bull’s, the purpose probably being to accentuate the difference between the male and female of the species. In 1604, the art theorist Karel van Mander had written that artists should make female animals much ‘smoother and sleeker’ than males.
The sheep lying down with the lamb is identified as a milch ewe by the smooth, bare tail (the so-called ‘arrow tail’). Again displaying his keen eye for detail, Potter captured the swollen veins in its ears, the moles on the full udder, and the shear-marks in the freshly-shorn coat. The standing ram is a ‘fox-head’ of the Drenthe moorland breed, characterized by spiral horns and a reddish brown colour. In contrast to the lifelike animals, the farmer is a rather stereotype figure who is also found in other works by Potter. He has been known to generations of Dutch schoolchildren as ‘Teun’, the personification of the simple countryman in the school reading primer. Paulus Potter ‘carved’ his name on the left of the top rail of the wooden fence.
The farmer and his animals are close to the viewer, standing on a hill separated from lower-lying meadows where cattle are grazing. That broad landscape background is remarkably fluently and freely painted compared to the highly detailed rendering of the bull, and is one of Potter’s finest efforts. Between the bull’s legs is a glimpse of a country house with a tower, and on the horizon further to the right is the silhouette of the church at Rijswijk.
In the distance, dark clouds are massing over the landscape, adding a sense of tension to this otherwise peaceful scene. At top right is a lark on the wing – a delicate touch that prevents this corner of the picture appearing too empty in relation to the remainder, and at the same time bringing balance to the composition.
When The Bull was restored in 1972 it was discovered that the canvas was originally smaller. The central section consists of two pieces of fine-weave canvas sewn together. This original surface was then enlarged by the artist himself by the addition of strips of a coarser canvas some 40-60 cm wide at the top and along both sides. The seams of the extensions are visible to the naked eye.
Initially, Potter probably intended just to paint the bull, and only later decided to turn the picture into a more general cattle piece. It is difficult to say how far he had progressed with the central section before he enlarged the canvas, but he may have got no further than a rough sketch. The background landscape, which can also be seen between the bull’s legs, in any event, was painted in a single session. It is not known why Potter altered the initial design, who his patron was, or where the canvas was to hang. At present, then, it is unclear what prompted the 21-year-old Potter to paint a life-size bull on a scale which he had never tackled before.
(this is a reworked version of a text written by Edwin Buijsen, published in: A. Walsh, E. Buijsen, B. Broos, Paulus Potter: Paintings, drawings and etchings, The Hague (Mauritshuis) 1994-1995, pp. 74-77)
Paulus Potter (Enkhuizen 1625 - 1654 Amsterdam)
On view in
Material and technical details
339 x 235.5 cm
Signed and dated
links van het midden, op het hek: Paulus. Potter. / f. 1647.
Barbarba Schas, widow of Willem Fabricius Senior, Haarlem, before 1718-1725; her son, Albert Fabricius, Haarlem, 1725- in or before 1732; his son, Willem Fabricius d’Almkerk, Haarlem, in or before 1732-1749; his sale, Haarlem, 19 August 1749 (Lugt 709), no. 1 (for 630 guilders to Frans Decker for Reynst); Jacob Reynst, Amsterdam, 1749; given by him to Prince William IV, Het Loo Palace, Apeldoorn, 1749; Prince William V, The Hague, until 1795; confiscated by the French, transferred to the Muséum Central des Arts/Musée Napoléon (Musée du Louvre), Paris, 1795-1815; Royal Picture Gallery, housed in the Prince William V Gallery, The Hague, 1816; transferred to the Mauritshuis, 1822