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Friday, May 25, 2012

Paulus Potter

Paulus Potter, Bartholomeus van de Heist
I grew up in a small town, a first generation "city boy." Never mind that the so-called "city" had less than 500 inhabitants, and out behind many homes in this city was a requisite barn, a reminder that the horse and buggy days were less than fifty years earlier. Most of them are gone now, but many were still in use in the early 1950s. I can remember our barn, a fine, unpainted, upstanding structure. In it we at one time had chickens housed in one end, pigs in the other. At one point, I believe we rented out part of the structure to a neighbor who had horses. In front of the barn was a sizable garden of which I was never too fond. You know how boring it is hoeing weeds?  The total size of our urban agricultural complex was probably about an acre, three-fourths of which was grass. I hated that too. You know how boring it is cutting grass? As I grew up, my parents, both of whom grew up on farms, considered it character building that their son likewise have a taste of the rural life, so I was regularly, each summer, shuttled off to the farm of an uncle or grandparent to "work in the hay" or later to a local truck farm to "pick (up) potatoes." You know how boring it is doing either one?

The Young Bull, ca. 1647, Paulus Potter
I don't know, maybe it was this early "farming out" or maybe just a natural love of animals, but in any case, I have always liked to paint animals, and look at paintings of animals. Some time ago I wrote of Aelbert Cuyp, the "cow painter" and Melchior D'Hondecoeter, the "chicken painter." It is only more recently as I've poked around in the barns and farmyards of Dutch seventeenth century art that I've come to realize, hey, these guys were great, but just the tip of the haystack, so to speak. Another quite delightful artist of their ilk was Paulus Potter. Who else would paint a life-size bull in all his anatomically correct glory, presiding over his resting mate, a family of sheep, and an almost incidental farmer. The painting is titled The Young Bull and may well be the first and only barnyard scene ever painted in which the artist included a cow patty for authenticity sake.

Paulus Potter was born in 1625. His father was the Dutch painter, Pieter Potter, who was his son's primary source of art instruction. His life is fairly unremarkable. He grew up near Amsterdam, married the daughter of the city's architect, and used his in-law's connections to obtain painting commissions. He died at the age of 28 of tuberculosis. But in this short working life span of maybe ten years, we find a devotion to animal art second to none in Dutch painting. Unlike Cuyp, who painted cows merely as interesting foregrounds to his airy, sun setting landscapes, Potter treated his cows and their mates with a dignity approaching that of portraiture. Anyone who's ever been around cows knows each one has a personality. (My wife grew up on a dairy farm.) Potter knew that too, and captured them. His drawings and etchings speak of an intimate, on-site knowledge of their "human" traits. Yet never is there a "cutesy" look to any of his creatures. He may not have grown up on a farm, but like me, he knew them well. One of his etchings is titled Cow Pissing. Even Cuyp didn't go that far. Nothing boring about that! 
Cow Pissing, ca. 1650, Paulus Potter

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