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.

When he painted The Bull in 1647, Paul Potter was not twenty-three years of age. He was a very young man; and according to the usual run of young men of twenty-three years, he was a child. To what school did he belong? To none. Had he any masters? We do not know of any other teachers than his father Pieter Simonsz Potter, an obscure painter, and Jacob de Wet (of Haarlem), who had no force to influence a pupil either for good or evil. Paul Potter then found around his cradle and afterwards in the studio of his second master nothing but simple advice and no doctrines; very strange to say, the pupil did not need anything more. Until 1647 Paul Potter divided his time between Amsterdam and Haarlem, that is to say, between Frans Hals and Rembrandt in the focus of the most active, the most inspiring and the richest art of celebrated masters that the world had ever known except during the preceding century in Italy. Professors were not lacking, the choice was only too embarrassing. Wynants was forty-six; Cuyp, forty-two; Terburg, thirty-nine; Ostade, thirty-seven; Metzu, thirty-two; Wouwerman, twenty-seven; and Berghem, about his own age, was twenty-three years of age. Many of the youngest even were members of the Guild of St. Luke. Finally, the greatest of all, the most illustrious, Rembrandt, had already produced the Night Watch, and he was a master to tempt one.

What became of Paul Potter? How did he isolate himself in the heart of this rich and swarming school, where practical ability was extreme, talent universal, style somewhat similar, and, nevertheless—a beautiful thing at that happy time—the methods of feeling were very individual? Had he any fellow-pupils? We do not see them. His friends are unknown. He was born,—it is the utmost we can do to be sure of the exact year. He reveals himself early, signing a charming etching at fourteen; at twenty-two he is ignorant on many points, but on others his maturity is unexampled. He laboured and produced work upon work; doing some things admirably. He accumulated them in a few years in haste and abundance, as if death were at his heels, and yet with an appreciation and a patience which render this prodigious labour miraculous. He married, young, for any one else but very late for him, for it was on July 3, 1650; and on August 4, 1654, four years afterwards, death seized him in the height of his glory, but before he had learned his whole ground. What could be simpler, shorter, and more fully accomplished? Genius and no lessons, ardent study, an ingenuous and able product, attentive observation and reflection; add to this great natural charm, the gentleness of a meditative mind, the appreciation of a conscience filled with scruples, the sadness inseparable from solitary labour, and, perhaps, the natural melancholy belonging to sickly beings, and you very nearly have all Paul Potter.

To this extent, if we except its charm, The Bull at The Hague represents him wonderfully well. It is a great study, too great from the common-sense point of view, not too great for the research of which it was the object, nor for the instruction that the painter drew from it.

Reflect that Paul Potter, compared with his brilliant contemporaries, was ignorant of all the skill of the handicraft: I do not speak of the tricks of which his frankness can never be suspected. He especially studied forms and aspects in their absolute simplicity. The least artifice was an embarrassment which would have spoiled him, because it would have altered his clear view of things. A great bull in a vast plain, an immense sky, and no horizon, so to speak,—what better opportunity is there for a student to learn once for all a host of very difficult things, and to know them, as they say, by rule and compass. The action is very simple; he did not fail with it; the movement is true, and the head admirably full of life. The beast has his age, his type, his character, his disposition, his length, his height, his joints, his bones, his muscles, his hair rough or smooth, in flocks or curls, his hide loose or stretched,—all is perfection. The head, the eye, the neck and shoulders, the chest, from the point of view of a naïve and powerful observation, form a very rare specimen, perhaps, really without an equal. I do not say that the pigment is beautiful, nor that the colour is well chosen; pigment and colour are here subordinated too visibly to preoccupations of form for us to exact much on that head, when the designer has given all, or nearly all, under another. Moreover, the work in that field accomplished with such force results in rendering nature exactly as she is, in her reliefs, her nuances, and her power, and almost in her mysteries. It is not possible to aim at a more circumscribed but more formal result and attain it with more success. People say Paul Potter's Bull, and that is not enough, I assure you: they might say The Bull, and, in my opinion, that would be the greatest eulogy that could be bestowed upon this work, so mediocre in its weak parts and yet so decisive.

Les Maîtres d'Autrefois (Paris, 1876)