A variety of Dutch artists at work during the Golden Age focused on elements relatable to everyday life, instead of the idealism and grandness displayed by artists in other countries, particularly France and Italy.
One such artist who developed a true understanding of the countryside and the animals he painted was Paulus Potter. Born in Enkhuizen in 1625, Potter was a talented artist from a young age, with his first signed painting dating from 1640. Despite his early death at age 28 of tuberculosis he left behind approximately one hundred paintings, which had a profound influence on how animals would be depicted in European art.
He would wander the Dutch countryside, sketchbooks and notebooks in hand, to observe farm animals in detail. Not only did he study the way the light changed throughout the day and the effects of changing weather on the light, he even studied the changing behaviors of animals throughout the day.
All of the study and awareness of his subject matter comes together in his painting of The Young Bull. The bull is not a depiction of just one animal, but a composite of sketches of various bulls at different ages, perhaps a combination of the elements that created the ideal bull for Potter.
The original painting consisted solely of the young bull. Although the canvas was already much larger than most of his other paintings, he added additional strips of canvas to include the other animals and the farmer. With the additions the painting is nearly eight feet wide.
The damp nose of the bull, the flies on the coat of the animal, the frog in the foreground and even the shadows of the clouds give a sense of movement to the background and play a significant role in turning a painting of a bull into a masterpiece.
A visit to Mauritshuis in The Hague, where the painting hangs, is an excellent opportunity to experience the awe and wonder that The Young Bull inspires.
For a more detailed analysis of The Young Bull and Potter’s legacy, read Issue 35 of Dutch the magazine.
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