IMPORTANT OLD MASTER PAINTINGS FROM THE FORBES COLLECTION FORMERLY AT FETTERCAIRN HOUSE
Acquired from the above by James Irvine on behalf of Sir William Forbes, 7th Baronet of Pitsligo (1773–1828), of Fettercairn, Kincardineshire, 16 October 1828, in Bologna, for 200 Louis;1
By descent to his son Sir John Stuart Hepburn-Forbes, 8th Baronet of Pitsligo (1804–1866);
By inheritance to his son-in-law Charles Trefusis, 20th Baron Clinton (1834–1904);
Thence by family descent to the present owner.
M. Jaffé, 'Pesaro family portraits: Pordenone, Lotto and Titian', The Burlington Magazine, vol. CXIII, no. 825, December 1971, p. 702 (a letter of 18 July 1829 from James Irvine to Sir John Forbes: '...the case from Milan which came too late to go with the P. Potter').
Both this and the following lot are new additions to the known œuvre of Paulus Potter, an artist best known as the leading painter of animals of the Dutch seventeenth century, particularly so for the outstanding anatomical correctness, detail and gesture of his chosen subjects. The fact of these paintings’ anonymity is unsurprising given the length of time they have remained hidden in a Scottish collection and they come to the market today for the first time in nearly two hundred years.
In this painting Potter combines a suggestion of movement in the wonderfully observed bull, turning slowly towards the tree stump, with the static forms of his seated companion and the recumbent sheep lying before him. The turning bull may be taken from one of his drawings known today only through a copy in the Teylers Museum, Haarlem.2 The bulls and the grassy meadow they inhabit are overlooked by an exceptionally beautiful sky, the edges of the heavy summer clouds tinged with the warmth of the dipping sun. It is closely comparable to that in a painting from the previous year, formerly in the Fattorini collection.3 Such skies, inspired by artists returning from Italy around this time, characterise Potter’s landscapes of the late 1640s as they do those of many of his Dutch counterparts such as Philips Wouwerman.
The state of the surface of the painting, which is covered in over a century of dirt and now-opaque varnish, masks to a certain extent the subtlety of the lighting effects. The sun catches the ancient bark of the gnarly oak to the left and the pollarded stumps to the right, and accentuates the woolliness of the cattle and sheep. Such a low light source was Potter’s wont in his mature works, for the shadow it throws accentuated each tiny detail that it was his particular skill to depict. In a cleverly designed composition Potter has, too, created an illusion of space through a very careful arrangement of his components which zig-zag several times from the front left ewe all the way back to the distant cows grazing at the far right.
Potter died from tuberculosis at the age of only twenty-eight, less than a year after the birth of his daughter Dingenom. He left behind him a small œuvre that has however rarely been out of fashion. At times his works have commanded prices that seem out of kilter with the ordinariness of their subjects, but it was Potter’s special skill that he turned such potentially mundane scenes into works of such exceptional beauty that have been collected by European kings, princes grand-dukes and most of the great British collectors of the late 18th and 19th centuries. His paintings were noted too by Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his friend Emile Bernard:
'Thus we find Paulus Potter painting rutting and excited animals in equally exciting landscapes – in a thunderstorm, in the sunshine, in the melancholy of autumn…'
Note on Provenance
James Irvine's letter to Sir William Forbes in October 1828 reveals some interesting provenance. He says that the dealer from whom he acquired it had brought it to Bologna from Vienna where he had bought it out of the collection of Count von Fries. Von Fries held a number of sales in the mid 1820s, in Vienna, Paris and Amsterdam. This painting does not however feature in any of the extant catalogues unless it could be identifiable with a cattle piece by Adriaen van de Velde, but given the Potter signature this seems unlikely.
Irvine first saw the work on 14 October 1828, noting his 'chief objection to it are two heavy brown clouds, one in the horizon and the other near the left dividing the blue sky into two strands. [...] It is painted with a prodigious body of colour, to my taste rather too much so.'4 He returned two days later when it made a far better impression on him and he bought it for Forbes. He writes to him: 'Although you have already one by him, yet I thought you might not dislike to have two of so scarce a master and at such a price'.5
1. First mentioned letter from James Irvine to Sir William Forbes, Bologna, 14 October 1828.
2. Black chalk, 84 x 142 mm. Inv. No. Q* 11. RKD image no. 225730.
3. Sold London, Sotheby’s, 3 July 1996, lot 11, for £980,000.
4. James Irvine letter to Sir William Forbes, Bologna, 14 October 1828
5. James Irvine letter to Sir William Forbes, Bologna, 16 October 1828
6. James Irvine letter to Sir William Forbes, Bologna, 16 October 1828.
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