… Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
(William Shakespeare, Macbeth Act 5, scene 5.)
Several of the painters of the Dutch Golden Age lived to a ripe old age, but one died tragically young: the brilliant Paulus Potter (1625–1654) who is most famous for his landscapes featuring farm animals.
He was born in Enkhuizen, a busy port in the north of the Netherlands, but moved to Leiden and then Amsterdam when still a child. His father was a painter, and he learned and worked in the family workshop.
He painted his God Appearing to Abraham at Sichem (1642) in the middle of his apprenticeship, making it one of his earliest surviving works. The human figures at the left have some odd proportions which indicate his inexperience, but the most striking feature is the magnificent pair of cows stealing the centre. How these cattle came to dominate this painting is a mystery: it is as if he was told to paint the Biblical motif, but lacked interest and decided to liven it up according to his desires.
Once he had completed his apprenticeship, he moved to Delft, where he became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke (the painters’ guild) in 1646.
Peasant Family with Animals (1646) appears to be another example of a hijacked motif, of a peasant family, with a curiously grotesque young daughter, their cottage, and some wizened trees. Potter has added to that a fairly extensive repertoire of farm animals, including two cows (one being milked), a calf, and sundry sheep, lambs, and a goat, almost in the fashion of a farm animal sampler.
His Figures with Horses by a Stable (1647) starts to show his mature compositional approach. The farmer and his wife, who is feeding a child at her breast, still have a slight awkwardness about them, but the horses, chickens, dog, and distant cattle are finely-painted, as is the magnificent tree in the centre. His sky contains several birds, another feature which remained fairly consistent in his mature works.
He completed his development in his Driving the Cattle to Pasture in the Morning (1647) with a superb dawn sky, providing the warm backlighting to the cattle and barren trees. The farmer’s child has grown, but still appears to feed at the breast, as was common at the time. At the far left a pair of pigs are shown in repose.
Probably his first masterpiece, which continued to be ranked alongside Rembrandt’s finest for the next couple of centuries, is The Bull (also widely known as The Young Bull) (1647), which is nearly life-sized, and almost hyperreal in its surface details. Originally intended just to be a portrait of the central bull, Potter enlarged the canvas to accommodate (from the left) a ram, lamb, ewe, herdsman, cow, and above them a bird of prey, possibly a buzzard. Beyond them are more cattle in the meadows, which recede to the church of Rijswijk, which is between Delft and The Hague.
There are also many fine details, such as the frog in the foreground, the textured bark and its lichen on the tree, and several flies on the cattle.
A Husbandman with His Herd (1648) is a variation on a similar theme, this time with a lifelike cow-pat in the centre foreground.
In 1649, Potter moved to The Hague, where he married, and worked until 1652. His wife’s family were well-connected and provided entry to the upper class. At this time, he apparently painted a work showing a cow pissing, which was bought (with glee) by Amalia of Solms-Braunfels, one of the royal court.
His Two Pigs in a Sty (1649) shows two quite hairy pigs at rest inside. Many of the older breeds of pig were more hairy than modern varieties, and Potter has painted their coats very realistically, as well as skilfully lighting the face of the sow sat on her haunches.
Two Horses near a Gate in the Meadow (1649) shows that Potter still had some room for improvement in his equine works: the head of the horse in the centre shows some slightly peculiar proportions.
The Bear Hunt (1649) is another very large canvas, showing a swarthy man armed with a scimitar, his hounds, and some other people, attacking two Eurasian brown bears. Although the bear had become extinct, through hunting, in the British Isles by about 1000 CE, it was still not uncommon in the Netherlands in Potter’s day. His first-hand knowledge of the animal appears limited, though, as their body proportions are quite different to those shown here.
Orpheus and Animals (1650) is one of Potter’s most unusual paintings, showing a wide range of different animal species, some of which were not well-known then, and one of which (the unicorn) did not even exist. Those shown include a Bactrian camel (two humps), donkey, cattle, ox, wild pig, sheep, dog, goat, rabbit, lions, dromedary (one hump), horse, elephant, snake, deer, unicorn, lizard, wolf, and monkey.
In 1652, Potter moved to Amsterdam.
Cattle in the Meadow (1652) develops the effects of light together with the early autumn season almost to the point of being impressionist in its use of colour. In addition to the cattle, the painting is enhanced with a sow and her piglets in the right foreground, and exuberant lichen growth on the split treetrunk by them.
Resting Herd (1652) shows another variation of his standard composition for cattle.
His Cows Grazing at a Farm (1653) was one of his last paintings, and apart from its meticulous detail, its rich lighting effects might be more typical of Corot two hundred years later, perhaps.
In 1654, when still in Amsterdam, he died from tuberculosis, aged only 28. In his tragically brief career, he had painted over a hundred oil paintings, most of which survive today. His faithful depictions of farm animals set the standard for art for the next couple of centuries, and were inspiration to Constant Troyon and others who painted animals.