Lot 6
  • 6

Paulus Pietersz. Potter

50,000 - 70,000 GBP
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  • Paulus Pietersz. Potter
  • Cattle and sheep with herdsmen in a landscape
  • signed and dated lower centre: Paulus. Potter. f. 1652
  • oil on oak panel, the reverse with a red wax seal bearing the arms of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine;
    also bearing two unidentified collector's seals: a bearded head in profile wearing a crown, and the initials 'PSA';
    with an episcopal collection label affixed to the reverse, probably bearing the arms of the Abbey of Schaffhausen, Switzerland


Pieter Locquet, Amsterdam;

His posthumous sale, Amsterdam, Van der Schley... Yver, 22 September 1783, lot 287, for 210 Florins to Fouquet;

Probably Leopold I (1747–1792), Holy Roman Emperor, Grand Duke of Tuscany 1765–1790, Vienna, and/or
Ferdinand III (1769–1824), Grand Duke of Tuscany 1790–1801, Vienna (see below);

Giuseppe Domenichini;

Acquired from the above by James Irvine on behalf of Sir William Forbes, 7th Baronet of Pitsligo (1773–1828), of Fettercairn, Kincardineshire, on 24 August 1827, in Bologna, for 2640 Lire (as one of 'due quadri rappresentanti animali l'uno da Paolo Potter');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.


C. Hofstede de Groot, A catalogue raisonné..., vol. IV, London 1912, p. 640, cat. no. 116;

Fettercairn House inventory, 1917 (Sitting Room);

Fettercairn House inventory, 1930 (Sitting Room).


The support would appear to be paper laid on panel. The single plank of oak, which is bevelled along all four edges is stable and with no apparent defects. The paint surface is extremely dirty and with an old opaque varnish. Towards the lower margin there are three or four air pockets between paper and panel. There are two small diagonal scratches in the extreme upper centre (approx. 1.5 cm. each at length), which have been restored. There appear to be fairly numerous retouchings through the clouds and some restoration to the landscape to the right of and above the sheep. There is also some more recent infilling in the shadowed part of the foreground lower left where the paint had began to separate. The top of the signature also appears to have been strengthened. The cows and the sheep are beautifully preserved and appear not to have been interfered with at all. The colours and the definition of the clouds are likely to transform upon cleaning. Sold in an empire gilt frame.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

This is a fine example of the precise realism that earned for Potter a reputation as the finest painter of animals of the Dutch Golden Age. In its multiple overlapping of animals it is typical of his works from the early 1650s, the years immediately before his tragic death at the age of twenty-eight in 1654. The painting has been in the same private collection for nearly two hundred years and is a new addition to the artist’s recognised œuvre of some 100 works.

Several related drawings have survived, the most obvious connection being with that sold London, Sotheby’s, 22 June 1982, lot 60, which seems to be related to the left most bull looking backwards into the distance (fig. 1). There is a further connection with the hastily sketched signed sheet in the British Museum of a bull in three quarter profile to the rear, and the more finished signed sheet formerly in the Gathorne-Hardy collection, that must both be preparatory for the second bull from the right.2

The sky here is governed by heavier, low lying cumulus clouds than in the preceding lot, though some patches of overpainting have likely masked some of their finer subtleties. Such skies are common to Potter’s works of 1652 (though by no means are they exclusive to them) and their effect is to draw our focus onto the carefully drawn and detailed animals. Here again Potter employs a low light source to the left that casts long shadows across the trodden ground to the right, catching the tips of the ewe’s remaining woollen clumps and the seemingly damp wads of the white cow’s hide. The stark light and shade that result from the low light source allow Potter to most clearly display his skill in the depiction of the anatomy of his subjects and we see this particularly clearly in the legs of the white cow whose every bone and muscle is exceptionally well-observed. More than any painter of animals before him, and most after, Potter seems to have understood the anatomical structure of his animals. He treats their skin like drapery, stretched over the skeleton beneath. He gave his animals character, acutely observed from life (Houbraken says he went out into the meadows to sketch from life) so that we recognise from our own real-life experiences of them the particular expressions and gestures of his cattle. The bulls here appear for the most part stationary but prone to make the occasional step forward. The brown bull at the rear stretches his head out and turns it towards the front seemingly distracted by the painter and catching our eye with his gaze.

In the last years of his life before his untimely death Potter often repeated motifs and groups of animals from one painting to the next. Such is the case for a similar work to this, also painted in 1652, in the Mauritshuis: the same group of cows can be seen in works from 1651 (Wallace Collection, London) and 1653 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).3 The present composition is repeated, with differences, in a work on canvas, said to be signed, that was formerly with Katz, Dieren, but that painting is most likely a copy.4 The moulting sheep here invites comparison with the panel of similar dimensions in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, also painted in 1652.

Note on Provenance
This painting has the distinction of having been part of the collection of Pieter Locquet in the 18th century, which included such famous paintings as Frans Hals' The Laughing Cavalier (Wallace Collection, London), Rembrandt's Slaughtered Ox (Musée du Louvre, Paris), and Jan Steen's Girl eating oysters (Mauritshuis, The Hague). When the collection was sold in 1783 this painting achieved a price of 210 florins, only just short of that achieved for Hals’ Laughing Cavalier which made 247 florins.

It also bears the seal of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. We learn in a letter from Irvine dated 14 October 1828, when writing to Forbes to inform him of another Potter he has come across (lot 5), that it 'was brought from Vienna by the same person who brought Aldrovandi's and is about the same size but upright...'.5 Domenichini, from whom Forbes acquired the present Potter, was agent for Count Luigi Pietro Aldrovandi Marescotti. The reference to the earlier purchased Potter, the present lot, informs us that it too was brought to Bologna from Vienna, which happens to be where both Leopold II and Ferdinand III resided and it was likely in that city where it acquired the Grand-Ducal seal at some point between the Locquet sale in 1793 and 1827.

1. In a letter from Giuseppe Domenichini, agent for Count Luigi Pietro Aldrovandi Marescotti, dated 24 August 1827 from Bologna, are listed paintings bought for Sir William Forbes by James Irvine, which include 'two paintings of animals, one by Paolo Potter' for 2640 Lire. Irvine later notes than on 15 January 1828, while still in Bologna, he paid a Signor Petraggani for the case of the Potter and its frame, and sent it separately to Florence. 

2. The former is in the British Museum, inv. no. 1910.2.12.174, RKD online image no. 45642; the latter was sold London, Sotheby’s, 3 May 1976, lot 30.

3. See A. Walsh et al., Paulus Potter, exhibition catalogue, The Hague and Zwolle 1995, pp. 136–37, all reproduced.

4. According to Witt Library mount.

5. Letter from Irvine to Forbes dated Bologna, 14 October 1828.