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A Lot of Bull

February 27, 2015




It’s hard to look at The Bull, painted in 1647 by twenty-one year old Dutch artist Paulus Potter (1625-1654) and understand how this painting was ever held in higher esteem than Rembrandt’s Night Watch. In fact, when this painting was exhibited in Paris during the Napoleonic Era, critics commented that there were only four canvases in the Louvre’s entire collection to equal Potter’s The Bull. This is incredible when you consider the staggering wealth of artworks in the Louvre. An obvious question: Why was this massive moo-piece held in such high regard?


There isn’t much to say about Paulus Potter, who died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-eight. His father was wealthy and Paulus, unlike many precocious children with art talent, never seemed to struggle or suffer for his art. He was an industrious fellow and painted nearly a hundred pictures in his short life, nearly all of them devoted to the depiction of farm animals. Previous artists had added animals to landscapes but they were used as props to complete a scene; Potter painted crisp portraits of his animals, each one presented as a unique creature with its own distinct personality.


The Bull was his largest painting, and while not considered his best it’s unquestionably his most famous. It hangs in the Mauritshius at The Hague, and before Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring became The Mona Lisa of the North, the museum’s largest crowds could be found in front of Potter’s bull.



The Bull by Paulus Potter, 1647


The Bull is considered a masterpiece of Holland’s Golden Age, and the epitome of Dutch realism. Since all of us were raised after the invention of the camera, we’ve come to respect the adage that seeing is believing, and this notion remained intact until photography and digital imagery became easy to manipulate. Anyone who has seen a Playboy centerfold or Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover knows what I mean.


Although composed of astonishing details (notice the flies on the cows’ coat, the dampness of their noses, the skylark scissoring through the sky, the forensic description of bark on the tree) this center bull, while looking like a portrait of a particular animal, isn’t real at all. Until a few years ago, the bull in the painting was assumed to be the depiction of an existing animal; however, wide discrepancies between the different parts of the body suggest otherwise. Wikipedia describes it thus:


The drooping dewlap and horns indicate a 2-year-old animal, but the teeth (six of which are permanent) are those of a 3- to 4-year-old bull. The forequarters are very muscular, while the hindquarters are underdeveloped. By all appearances, Potter composed the bull from a number of preliminary studies of different animals.


Another interesting element of this painting is that it originally focused only on the center bull; the artist later added strips of canvas to include the other animals, the farmer, and landscape on the right. The Dutch were extremely proud of their country, having wrestled much of it from the sea, and Potter’s work is as much about the landscape as it is about the animals, but the addition of space on the right throws the composition in my opinion. This wasn’t a commissioned piece so he had no one to please other than himself, and it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever know why he made these additions.


Several years ago I stood before Potter’s The Bull. No crowd blocked my view. Before long, the painting began working its magic on me. I could see ears twitching, noses sniffing. My own nose seemed to fill with the fecal smell of a cow pasture. There was a time when we humans lived in close proximity to our animals, our survival often depended on it, but over the past few hundred years a distance has expanded between us and the animals we now exploit mainly for consumption.



It’s much easier to walk to another room in the museum and admire Vermeer’s moist-lipped Girl With a Pearl Earring.


She’s pretty, and she doesn’t stink.







Note: I’m off to Bellevue, Washington, to attend a memorial service for my sister-in-law’s mother, and I won’t be back until Monday. Hope everyone has a great weekend.



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I'm sorry for your family's loss. The painting does have incredible detail. I appreciate life-like paintings, and while there is nothing really remarkable about this one overall, it's the details and realism that make it.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on February 27, 2015
Unlike you, it took until I was into my later 30s and 40s to really begin to appreciate art. And I have to say that I appreciate it all the more when I read your posts depicting facts and history behind familiar and new-to-me paintings. Thank you for that. I'm sorry for your family's loss. Safe travels to you and yours.
By: Hilary on February 27, 2015
i figured he was only a couple of years old as he is quite small compared to the cow, plus, as you said, his hindquarters are quite small whereas his head is quite big. as for the girl w/ the pearl earring, it is forever ruined for me as now all i see is scarlet j.
By: TexWisGirl on February 27, 2015
I've said it before, you are the only one I know who can make art history so interesting. I would buy your art history text book in a heart beat.
By: Cranky on February 27, 2015
The smell of cattle manure is thought of as being the smell of money around quite a few areas.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on February 27, 2015
I'm sorry for your loss. Have you ever written an art history text? I, too, would buy it!!
By: fishducky on February 27, 2015
I'm sorry for your family's loss. I see a rural scene, not so much the bull in particular. I guess because I see bulls and cows every day where I live, so I'm numb to noticing the details. You and Tex are right, though...he does seem to be pieced together from different aged bulls. I've never been to an art museum. I expect I would be awed by any two year old's drawing in one.
By: Coloring Outside the Lines on February 27, 2015
As usual, your history is impeccable as is your taste in art. I had never heard of this artist or painting. I actually don't like it but it's interesting to hear the facts about it.
By: Madeleine McLaughlin on February 27, 2015
I always find this type of story fascinating. Safe journey on your travels
By: John on February 27, 2015
I agree the bull seems disproportionate but perhaps he is from a breed no longer around. However I do like the rest of the painting very much, perhaps because I enjoy farm animals. .
By: Akansas Patti on February 27, 2015
I love this painting because I see in the bulls body language his love for the dewy eyed four legged damsel reclining next to him. Plus his olive tree bark is perfect...I like this painting and I adore your art lectures....when is your book coming out? My deepest sympathies to your sister in law and all the family.
By: Kathe W. on February 27, 2015
My condolences to your Sister-in-Law and her family. It is fascinating to us "city slickers" to see animals that we don't usually interact with, right in their usual habitat.
By: mimi on February 27, 2015
It's a moosterpiece. I'm sorry you don't have a happy reason to visit Bellevue. I've been there many times. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on February 27, 2015
Great history lesson. Thank you.
By: Bouncin Barb on February 27, 2015
I'm a little embarrassed, but I've never heard of that painting. The others yes, but not that one. And I agree with you.
By: Rick on February 27, 2015
While I may like and appreciate a pastoral scene , I'm not sure this guy ever saw a bull. Bulls have large shoulders, thick necks and huge heads. This guy looks pretty tame. But then I'm being picky about 1 % of this painting!
By: red on February 27, 2015
Condolences, and hope you have a safe trip. I thought it wasn't a bad looking cow, but I guess I have been around cows enough to see some of the details you mentioned. It's still a nice painting, however. And I agree with the group, when is your art history book coming out? Cat
By: Cat on February 28, 2015
Condolences from me too. But ... are you saying that bull was photoshopped?!?
By: Tom Sightings on February 28, 2015
My sympathies to your family. I preferred the thumbnail of the nose. The composition of the full painting is all off, and the farmer looks like he "photo-bombed" the cows! It does look more realistic than the girl's painting though. She does nothing for me... but neither does the Mona Lisa.
By: Lexa Cain on February 28, 2015
As always, your background stories are so interesting to this art illiterate! I noticed right away that something was off with the bull...but then, I grew up on a farm. My condolences to your family on your loss!
By: Pixel Peeper on February 28, 2015
Quite amazing, Stephen, but the painting does grow on you and it has incredible detail there . . . :)
By: Eddie Bluelights on March 1, 2015
. . . and so sorry for the family loss . . .
By: Eddie Bluelights on March 1, 2015
My condolences to your family on your loss. Notwithstanding the anatomy of the bull; I like the piece.
By: Daniel LaFrance on March 1, 2015
The very first thing I wondered when I saw the painting: what's that guy doing with his right hand behind the tree? I think this says a lot about how my brain works.
By: Al Penwasser on March 1, 2015
Stephen: Beautiful post, as usual. My sincere condolences over your loss.
By: Michael Manning on March 2, 2015

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