A bull stands silhouetted against a threatening sky. It seems energised and alert, aware of the presence of the viewer – it makes direct eye contact with us – and of the storm. A strong wind bends the willow trees and a sheet of rain sweeps across the middle distance. Two cows and a pair of sheep remain calmly feeding or resting – images of fortitude and dependability, watched over by the protective bull. There’s a strong sense of independence here, too: there’s no sign of a herdsman, nor other human interference.
Why would Potter cast cattle as heroes? From an economic point of view, cheese and butter were national staples and key exports at a time when the Dutch Republic was on the verge of becoming a fully independent nation. Cows were a dependable source of prosperity, and Potter may have been intending to convey a symbolic message about national resilience and identity.
This is only a small painting, probably made for a domestic reception room, but it casts its subject in a heroic light. A bull stands silhouetted against the brightest patch of a threatening sky. It seems energised and alert, as though aware of the presence of the viewer, making direct eye contact with us, and of the storm. We can sense the threat too. A strong wind bends the willow trees – silvery leaves catch the sunlight streaming through a brief gap in the clouds – and buffets a pair of seagulls mid-flight. A sheet of rain sweeps across the middle distance.
But two cows and a pair of sheep remain calmly feeding or resting, images of fortitude and dependability, watched over by the protective presence of the bull. There’s a strong sense of independence here too: there’s no sign of a herdsman or other human interference, nor buildings or towns in the distance.
Potter evokes the power of nature but is interested in its subtler side too. In the shelter of the foreground he has painted a patch of wildflowers clustered around a fallen log. It’s a moment of quietness in an otherwise turbulent scene, and it also gives greater depth to the composition, setting the cattle – the heroes of the painting – at a slightly greater distance.
In the same year as he painted this, when he was just 22, Potter made his name with another painting which treated cattle in a heroic light, and on a much grander scale. The life-size painting of a bull standing with its owner and other sheep and cows now hangs in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, and is one of the most famous images of Dutch art of the Golden Age.
So why would a painter like Potter cast cattle as heroes? At the time, there was certainly a market for images of rural life in which cows often featured prominently. They would often focus on more serene, farmyard scenes, suffused with a golden light, a fashionable effect which had recently come to Holland through the work of landscape painters who had been to Italy (look at A Landscape with Cows, Sheep and Horses by a Barn). Potter was one of the most successful pioneers of the genre.
No doubt they would have been of sentimental appeal to city dwellers, but from an economic point of view, cows were also an important national success story. In recent decades, flooded land had been reclaimed to produce pasture, and there had been improvements in breeding stock and husbandry. Cheese and butter were now key exports at a time when the Dutch Republic was on the verge of winning independence from Spain.
Cattle represented an important and dependable source of wealth, prosperity and plenty. By emphasising these perceived qualities at what was a turning point in Dutch history, Potter may have intended to convey a more symbolic message about national strength and fortitude in the face of adversity.
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