Century Magazine/Volume 48/Issue 6/Old Dutch Masters. Paul Potter
aul Potter's career was of short duration, but the number of excellent works which he executed, and the zeal and untiring energy with which he labored, were extraordinary. He was born at Enkhuizen, a fishing-village on the Zuyder Zee, November 20, 1625, and studied art under his father, an obscure landscape-painter; yet such was the precocity of his talent that at the age of fourteen years he executed a charming etching, and from that time forth produced work upon work. He lived for some years with his father at Amsterdam; then, at the age of twenty-one, went to Delft, where during two years he painted many of his finest things, including his large and famous work, "The Young Bull." In 1649 he took up his residence at The Hague, where he joined the Painters' Guild, and rose to fame and princely patronage. In 1650 he married, and in 1652 returned once more to Amsterdam, at the instance of one of his chief patrons, the burgomaster Tulp. Here, his health rapidly failing, he died in 1654 of consumption, superinduced by over-work.
During this brief period of not more than fourteen working years, the latter part of which must have been hampered by disease, he produced an astonishing amount of work, not to be matched in its kind. His paintings amount to 103, besides 18 etchings, together with numerous drawings and studies, including landscapes, and masterly heads of oxen and sheep in varied positions with difficult foreshortenings; trees and tree-trunks well understood and energetically executed; carts and plows, and all kinds of farming implements, showing singular precision of design.
"The Young Bull," considered as a piece of portraiture, is doubtless a splendid work. It is one of the most celebrated things in Holland, and The Hague Museum owes to it a large part of the curiosity of which it is the object. Though it may not fill all the requirements of a perfect picture,—and in this respect it has been the subject of criticism,—it nevertheless satisfies as a complete and conclusive portrayal of a bull, and has been rightly termed "The Bull." The animal shows its temperament, length, height, joints, bones, muscles, its hair rough or smooth, tangled or curled, its loose or tight skin, all in perfection. The gesture is true, and the head admirably living. Consider its setting upon the canvas: it is placed upon a rising of ground, opposed to the wide sky and against a white cloud, becoming, by this artifice, of paramount importance, and filling the eye at a glance, so that the other animals, with the herdsman in his safe retreat behind the tree (not a bull-tamer by any means), and the pastures beneath him, are but accessories—the bull is lord of the fields and pastures.
In point of execution it is marvelously minute: the single hairs upon the brute’s head are seemingly palpable to the touch, and flies are seen buzzing about. This closeness of observation extends to the bark and foliage of the tree, and the grass and pebbles on the ground, where also a toad is seen; yet although the artist appears to ignore the art of sacrifices, and the fact that things must sometimes be suggested and but half expressed, he does not lose sight of breadth. This work measures 8 feet 6 inches in height, by 9 feet 10 inches in width, and was painted in 1647, when the artist was but twenty-two years of age.
But Paul Potter does not succeed so well in his large pictures as in those of more moderate size. In many of his small works he evinces fine poetic feeling and depth of sentiment, and these are rightly his chefs d'œuvre. In the Louvre, for instance, there is a charming little work of this description 9 by 10 inches, painted in the same year as "The Bull,"—1647,—and catalogued under the title of "Horses at the Door of a Cottage." It is an evening effect. Here are mystery and beauty of tone, and, to know Paul Potter in his fullness, one must not overlook such works as these.
The Hague Museum possesses a portrait of Paul Potter painted by Van der Helst in 1654, and as Potter died in January of that year, it follows that this portrait must have been completed but a few days before his death. It shows a sensitive and refined countenance, light hair and eyelashes, full, strong lips, and delicate mustache. He is clad in velvet, and sits by his easel with palette and brushes in hand, looking out at the spectator with a serious, determined expression. It seems very remarkable that this should be the likeness of a man wasted with consumption, and at death's door. But it is not more remarkable than his life, which was one of prodigious labor, and wonderful perseverance.