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The Knox College Library > Special Collections and Archives > Digital Exhibits > Outside the Shadow of Rembrandt

Paulus Potter

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"The Herd"

"The Herd"

-- by Hera Cha
Paulus Potter (1625-1654) was baptized at Enkhuizen, North Holland on November 20th, 1625. Potter was the son of the painter Pieter Simonsz Potter and his wife, Aechtie Paulusdr Bartsius, sister of the painter Willem Bartsius. Potter's first signed works date from 1641, when he was aged barely fifteen. When he died at the tragically young age of twenty-eight due to complications of tuberculosis, his artistic talents had only just come to maturity. Despite his brief life, Potter was a highly innovative and influential artist. Potter was gifted in a variety of genres and media, and it is speculated that "The Herd" is his very first etching that he executed in 1643 at the age of either seventeen or eighteen.

Before Paulus was three years old, Pieter Simonsz moved his family to Leiden, where he purchased citizenship on May 15th, 1628 and joined the glass-makers' guild as a master glass painter. In 1631, when Paulus was five years old, the Potter family moved to Amsterdam, where on October 14th, 1635 his father purchased citizenship, probably joining the painters' guild shortly thereafter. Potter came of age as a painter in the sophisticated artistic milieu of Amsterdam. The details of his artistic training are sketchy, but given his family's social position and professional pursuits, he was presumably well-educated. Potter trained first with his father, whom he quickly surpassed. His first dated work was done in the year 1643. In May of that year, a "P. Potter" was recorded as a student of Jacob de Wet in Haarlem. In August of 1646, Potter joined the painters' guild in Delft. In 1649, he entered the painters' guild at The Hague and was married to Adriana Backen Eynde in that city in July 1650. As the center of government and residence of the Stadholder's court, The Hague offered particularly good patronage and market opportunities for artists.

Amy Walsh has noted that Potter produced almost one hundred paintings during his brief life, which range from biblical and mythological subjects to landscapes, rustic genre scenes, elegant hunting parties and, of course, animal pieces. In an attempt to lead the viewer's gaze into the picture, Potter skillfully used light and shading to define space and the forms it contained and to give the impression of an almost tangible atmosphere. The most lauded aspect of Potter's style is the precise realism with which he rendered certain details in his meticulously finished paintings with the dedication of a miniaturist. Potter's attention to naturalistic detail can be seen with the depiction of different textures, but also in the way he enlivened his meadows with frogs, lizards, poppies and butterflies. The sharply focused details in Potter's work may stem, in part, from a widespread cultural fascination in 17th century Holland with advancements in the optical sciences. It was specifically the improvement of lenses and the development of the telescope and microscope in Holland around 1600 that inspired a number of illustrations analyzing the structure of plants, animals and insects. Moreover, The Herd represents the extreme realism of Dutch Baroque art, since it has no allusions to classical arcadia or the idealized tradition of Italian landscape painting.

During the 1640's, biblical and mythological subjects became increasingly rare in Potter's work. The Herd is one of Potter's earliest pure animal pieces, incorporating a direct observation of the Dutch countryside. He depicts rural life with a novel sensitivity to the play of light and shade. As the title of the etching suggests, Potter is depicting a pastoral landscape scene featuring a young boy tending his cows. During the early 1640's, Potter's animals became increasingly naturalistic and resemble animals in Moeyaert's work, sharing with them wide-eyed, even jocular expressions. Although more convincing than their predecessors, Moeyaert's animals nevertheless still appear as solid, homogeneous masses with little distinction of bone, flesh and skin. In contrast, from an early date, Potter sought to bring out more accurate, underlying anatomical structure to his animals.

It is notable that all of Potter's two dozen etchings have animals as their subjects. With The Herd, Potter first made a proof impression, which displays his precocious skill with the etching needle. It was only in the second state that he added his name and the date 1643, together with the statement that he had designed and executed the scene himself: "In[ventor] et fecit". In the third state he altered his forename from "Pauwelus" to "Paulus." In 1649 Potter reworked the plate yet again, totally transforming the composition and that is the version featured in this exhibition. He cropped the plate by 6.5 cm on the left, removing the three cattle on the hummock, which he replaced with a pond and a vista. He cut down the plate from a rectangle to the square and reworked a group of cows into the distant landscape on the left side of the image. While the remaining figures are largely unchanged, there is a still-visible adjustment in the hind leg, feet and shoulder of the cow descending the path on the right. The elimination of the animals on the left made the composition more restful, and shifted the emphasis more onto the main group of the standing and recumbent cow. In effect, Potter turned his original composition into a completely new scene and arranged the animals in such a way that they create a clearly structured circle of space, which is one of Potter's compositional trademarks. Another feature evident here is Potter's tendency to render his animals as silhouetted forms against the distant landscape.

Because this is Potter's very first etching and because it was done at such a young age, the graphic style is more tight and tentative. Indeed, some of the detailed qualities of Potter's etching style in The Herd can be related to an early phase of his career when his drawing technique was also tighter and more linear. In many of his etchings, Potter attempted to recreate the meticulous linear precision of his drawings by relying on precise patterns of hatched marks, which is especially evident in The Herd. A more loose, fluid elegance appeared in Potter's later art, when he was persuaded to move to Amsterdam to work for the wealthy Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, who was also Rembrandt's early patron.

During the course of the seventeenth century, the motif of the animal piece became very important and Potter was among the most influential of the Dutch artists in developing this genre. Before Potter's time, animals frequently appeared in art as an incidental part of landscapes or history paintings, but rarely as the principal subject of a work. Potter was revolutionary in his utilization of animals alone as the primary focal subject of a rural landscape. Cattle were very popular subjects in Dutch animal pieces, especially in Potter's etchings. The cow acquired prominence due to a variety of associations with 17th century Dutch viewers. Walsh has noted that Potter's images of human figures and animals together in the countryside corresponded to 17th century literary trends in Holland that associated the farmers' close contact with nature as an emblem of virtue, peace and freedom. Cows were also used as significant nationalistic symbols in the cultural and political iconography of Dutch Baroque art. Cattle farming played a major role in the flourishing Dutch economy during the 17th century. With new agricultural advances, the development of the dairy industry boomed in Holland and contributed to the country's financial prosperity within the European market. As a result, cattle were a source of patriotic and economic pride to the Dutch and appeared in numerous emblem books and literary works as symbols of fertility, wealth and the earth. The "Dutch cow" came to represent the nation in written and pictorial allegories and in his artistic treatises even Carel van Mander instructed painters to be aware of all the physical details that distinguished various types and breeds.

References

  • Sutton, Peter. "Masters of 17th Century Dutch Landscape Painting." Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1987.
  • Sell, Stacey. "Masterpieces of Renaissance and Baroque Printmaking: A Decade of Collecting." Charlottesville: Bayly Art Museum, University of Virginia, 1991.
  • Walsh, Amy and others. "Paulus Potter: Paintings, Drawings and Etchings." The Hague: Mauritshius, 1995.

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Printed on Sunday, December 21, 2014