Paul Potter – Masters Of Painting

ONE of the most famous pictures in the world is Paul Potter’s ” Young Bull,” in the Museum at The Hague. In the time of the Napoleonic wars, it was carried off to Paris by the French, and according to one authority was considered as fourth in value among all the pictures in the Louvre ; the three which ranked before it being Raphael’s “Transfiguration,” Domenichino’s “Communion of St. Jerome,” and Titian’s ” Martyrdom of St. Peter.” Yet it is not to be ranked among the best works of Potter, but is remarkable rather as the production of a young man of but twenty-two years, and as one of the few large pictures which he painted.

Fromentin, admirable both as a critic and an artist, says : ” When he painted the ‘ Bull’ in 1647, Paul Potter was only twenty-three years old, He was a very young man, and according to what is common among men of twenty-three, he was a mere child. To what school did he belong? To none. Had he had masters ? No other teachers of his are known but his father, Pieter Simonsz Potter, an obscure painter, and Jacob de Weth, of Haarlem, who also had not knowledge enough to act upon a pupil for good or evil. Paul Potter found then, either around his cradle or in the studio of his second master, nothing but simple advice and no doctrine ; but, strange to say, the pupil asked nothing further. Till 1647 Paul Potter lived between Amsterdam and Haarlem, that is, between Frans Hals and Rembrandt, in the heart of the most active, the most stirring art, the richest in celebrated masters that the world has ever known, except in Italy in the preceding century. Teachers were not wanting ; there was only the embarrassment of choice. Wynants was forty-six years old ; Cuyp, forty-two ; Terburg, thirty-nine ; Ostade, thirty-seven; Metzu, thirty-two; Wouvermans, twenty-seven; Berghem, who was about his own age, was twenty-three. Many of them, even the youngest, were members of the brotherhood of St. Luke. Finally, the greatest of all, and the most illustrious, Rembrandt, had already produced the ‘Night Watch,’ and he was a master who might have been a temptation. But what did Paul Potter do ? Had he co-disciples ? None are seen. His friends are unknown. He was born, but we hardly know the year with exactitude. He awoke early ; at fourteen years signed a charming etching ; at twenty-two, though ignorant on many points, he was of unexampled maturity in others. He labored, and produced work upon work, and some of them were admirable. He accumulated them in a few years with haste and abundance, as if death was at his heels, and yet with an application and a patience which make this prodigious labor seem a miracle. He was married at an age young for another, very late for him, for it was on July 3, 1650, and on August 4, 1654, four years after, death took him, possessing all his glory, but before he had learned his trade. What could be simpler, briefer, more complete ? Take genius and no lessons, brave study, an ingenuous and learned production resulting from attentive observation and reflection, add to this a great natural charm, the gentleness of a meditative mind, the application of a con-science burdened with scruples, the melancholy inseparable from solitary labor, and possibly the sadness of a man out of health, and you have nearly imagined Paul Potter.”

It may be doubted if any artist of equal fame died as young as Paul Potter, unless we except Masaccio, whose work was stopped at an even earlier age. He reposes in the very reverse of the quiet scenes he loved so well to depict. All around is the bustle of life, the throng of commerce, the din of busy feet. The quaint and characteristic steeple peeps over tall warehouses, surrounding busy docks where produce is unladen from all quarters of the world. You cannot rest on the bridges which span the canal to reflect on the mausoleum of the painter, for the heavily laden cart is constantly moving with merchandise, or the quaint old coach, almost noiselessly sliding on its sledge in place of wheels, might too dangerously disturb your reverie. There is something incongruous in seeking the grave of the pastoral painter in such uncongenial scenes ; and in the very midst .of ‘life’s fitful fever’ to find the grave of one who revelled in ‘fresh fields and pastures new ; ‘ who studied them with a poet’s love, and delineated them with a love of nature, and who should have slept where trees shadow and flowers garnish the sod.

“An artist like Potter is a creator of a style ; his genius enables him not only to delineate what he sees, but to express the hidden sentiment which gives the charm to nature itself. He has gone below the surface. He has been thus contrasted with painters of his school by a modern critic : ‘Others have painted cows, oxen, well-drawn sheep, all well colored and painted. He alone has seized their expression, the physiognomy of their inner existence, of their instinct. We admire the flocks and herds of Berghem, of Van der Velde, of Karel Dujardin; we are touched by those of Paul Potter.’

” It should ever be remembered that it is to the artists of Holland we owe a relief from the trammels of the mere ‘academic’ school. It is to their love of nature, and persevering study of her beauties that we are indebted for a purely natural series of pictures, which rely alone for immortality on their true reflection of her varied beauties. The world as it lay around us was long a book unstudied in the flights of fancy after the ideal. To them was given the power of discovering the gold that is hidden amid the dross ; the poetry that is in humble nature ; the sentiment that lurks beneath the simplest form. They created therefore a new school of art, and a school which might successfully appeal to all, by the simplicity of its sphere of action. The minute traits of nature in their pictures resemble the charming traits of her features which delight us in the poetry of Shakespeare or of Burns. As the ‘lush woodbine’ or the ‘mountain daisy’ could gladden the hearts of these noble poets into song, so the changing aspects of the sky could elevate into grandeur the simplest elements of Rembrandt’s pictures, and the level meads and happy cattle of Paul Potter give a sentiment of happiness to the spectator, like that felt by Goethe’s ‘Faust,’ when, tired of all the artificial glories of life, he feels his loftiest emotions arise from the contemplation of the fertile fields and happy peasantry around him. Truly —

“‘ One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,’

and while this cosmopolitan relationship exists, the Dutch painters will find admirers.”

The painter of “The Studio of Paul Potter” was born at Paris in 1806, and died at Auteuil in 1870. Three battle-pieces by him are at Versailles, and the French government bought his “View near Etretat in the Bathing-season.” He painted also “The Studio of Van der Velde,” Adriaan Brauwer Painting a Tavern Child,” “The Sinking of the Le Vengeur,” “Winter in Holland,” “Fishermen Saving a Wreck,” and “Lighting a Beacon in Holland.”