THE BULL

(PAUL POTTER)

EUGÈNE FROMENTIN

The Lesson in Anatomy, The Night Watch, and Paul Potter's Bull are the most celebrated things in Holland. To the latter the Museum at The Hague owes a great part of the interest it inspires. It is not the largest of Paul Potter's canvases; but it is, at least, the only one of his great pictures that merits serious attention. The Bear Hunt in the Museum of Amsterdam (supposing it to be authentic), even by ridding it of the retouches which disfigure it, has never been anything else save the extravagance of a young man, the greatest mistake he committed. The Bull is not priced. Estimating it according to the present value of Paul Potter's other works, nobody doubts that in a European auction it would fetch a fabulous sum. Then is it a beautiful picture? By no means. Does it deserve the importance attached to it? Incontestably. Then is Paul Potter a very great painter? Very great. Does it follow that he really does paint as well as is commonly supposed? Not exactly. That is a misapprehension that it will be well to dissipate.

The Bull. Paul Potter.

The Bull.
Paul Potter.

On the day when this suppositious auction of which I speak opened, and consequently when every one had the right freely to discuss the merits of this famous work, if anyone dared to let the truth be heard, he would speak very nearly as follows:

"The reputation of the picture is very much exaggerated and at the same time very legitimate; it is contradictory. It is considered as an incomparable specimen of painting, and that is a mistake. People think it is an example to be followed, a model to be copied, one in which ignorant generations may learn the technical secrets of their art. In that again they deceive themselves entirely. The work is ugly and very ill-conceived, and the painting is monotonous, thick, heavy, dull, and dry. The arrangement is of the poorest. Unity is lacking in this picture, which begins one knows not where, does not end anywhere, receives light without being illuminated, and distributes it at random, escapes on every side and runs out of the frame, so exactly like flowered linen prints does it seem to be painted. The space is too crowded without being occupied. Neither the lines, nor the colour, nor the distribution of the effects, give it even those first conditions of existence which are essential to any fairly well-ordered work. The animals are ridiculous in their size. The painting of the fawn cow with the white head is very hard. The ewe and the ram are modelled in plaster. As for the shepherd, no one would think of defending him. Only two portions of this picture seem to be intended for our notice, the great sky and the enormous bull. The cloud is well in place: it is lighted up where it should be, and it is also properly tinted according to the demands of the principal object, its purpose being to accompany or serve as a relief to the latter. With a wise understanding of the law of contrasts, the painter has beautifully graded the strong tints and the dark shading of the animal. The darkest part is opposed to the light portion of the sky, and the most energetic and ingrained characteristic of the bull is opposite to all that is most limpid in the atmosphere. But this is hardly a merit, considering the simplicity of the problem. The rest is simply a surplus that we might cut away without regret, to the great advantage of the picture."

That would be a brutal criticism, but an exact one. And yet public opinion, less punctilious or more clear-sighted, would say that the signature was well worth the price.

Public opinion never goes entirely astray. By uncertain roads, often by those not most happily chosen, it arrives definitely at the expression of a true sentiment. The motives that lead it to acclaim any one are not always of the best, but there are always other good reasons that justify this expression. It is deceived regarding titles, sometimes it mistakes faults for excellencies, it estimates a man for his manner, and that is the least of all his merits; it believes that a painter paints well when he paints badly and because he paints minutely. What is astonishing in Paul Potter is the imitation of objects carried to the point of eccentricity. People do not know, or do not notice, that in such a case the soul of the painter is of more worth than the work, and that his manner of feeling is of infinitely greater importance than the result.