POTTER, Paulus
(b. 1625, Enkhuizen, d. 1654, Amsterdam)

The Young Bull

Oil on canvas, 236 x 339 cm
Mauritshuis, The Hague

In the work of Paulus Potter views of nature and animals are seen for their own sake, and not as a backdrop for human action. Potter can paint equally well the bright sunlight and the cool air, but his real fame lies with his penetrating portraits of animals. His best-known work is the life-size Young Bull, an unusual heroization of a single animal, a counterpart to the monumental trend of Ruisdael and Cuyp.

Although at first sight it appears to be a portrait of a prize young bull Potter most probably composed his famous beast from studies of more than one animal since its dewlap, horns, and teeth belong to bulls of different ages. The ancient Greek painter Zeuxis used a similar method; when he painted his portrait of Helen in the city of Croton he chose five beautiful virgins, in order to copy the finest features of each, for in one woman he felt he could not find perfect beauty.

What makes this painting 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.

During the nineteenth century the Young Bull by the twenty-two-year-old Potter ranked close in fame to the Night Watch of Rembrandt. Later generations have been less captivated by Potter's fidelity to nature when he worked life-size. Although the shapes of the farmer, the tree, and the bull against the light sky are impressive and the textures of the animals have been convincingly represented by the use of an original impasto which approaches relief, the entire foreground of this huge canvas seems airless. Atmosphere enters the picture only in the lovely distant view on the right, where a sunny light plays upon the cattle in the meadows and on the woods, making this passage one of his loveliest landscapes. Potter is more consistent on a small scale, and his cabinet pieces show him at his best.

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