Witness the restoration of an iconic painting in The Hague

Paulus Potter THE BULL 1647 236.5 x 341 x 5 cms

From 29th March, visitors to Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague will be able to follow the examination and restoration of Paulus Potter’s The Bull live. This huge painting (the largest in the Mauritshuis collection!) was last restored fifty years ago. Since then, there have been significant advances in conservation, restoration and research techniques. Over the course of eighteen months, this project aims to learn more about Potter’s painting techniques and working methods. This restoration treatment will help to preserve The Bull for future generations. The examination and restoration are being funded by Dutch family-run company Lely, a bequest by Mrs. A.D. Bonebakker-van Enter, an anonymous donor, the Debman Foundation and Stichting Retourschip. 

Glass wall

The painting will be taken off the wall and moved to another room, which will be set up as a studio for the examination and restoration. Almost daily, the public will be able to watch through a glass wall as the conservators work with scientific equipment. The technical examination of the painting will take place between 29 March and the end of May, and the extensive restoration treatment will commence in early June. It will probably take until autumn 2025 to complete.

The examination and restoration will hopefully provide answers to several outstanding questions. Potter started with a smaller painting – probably just depicting the bull – but later extended the canvas on three sides to add the rest of the composition. How and why did he do this? The original blue sky has become discoloured and damaged over the centuries, and is therefore in worse condition than the rest of the painting. During previous treatments, the damage was covered by over-painting it. The conservators now hope to restore both the sky and the entire painting to bring it closer to what Potter intended back in 1647, when he completed The Bull.

Initial findings
The initial findings of the study indicate that Potter made many changes while painting The Bull. Besides enlarging the canvas, a number of changes – so-called ‘pentimenti’ – have also been found in the composition. Infrared techniques allow conservators and researchers to see through the layers of paint. For example, it has been discovered that the bull’s hind legs have been moved a bit, that Potter first painted a fence under the bull’s head, and that the landscape in the background looked different at an earlier stage. The painting has also undergone changes due to earlier restorations. The research shows, for example, that farmer Teun’s chest hair was considerably highlighted during the last restoration, in the 1970s.

We know of a total of five large-format paintings by Paulus Potter. During prior research, it has come to light that a sixth existed. The National Gallery of Ireland (Dublin) owns a painting that can be linked to The Bull. Mauritshuis conservator Jolijn Schilder discovered that Potter once made a large painting (about 2.10 m x 1.70 m) depicting The Rape of Europa, of which the oval painting the Head of a White Bull, now in Dublin, appears to be a fragment. A significant part of the painting has been lost; only this fragment remains. The two bulls are different in colour, but the way the heads are depicted shows strong similarities. As a result, the ‘Irish’ bull will be invaluable for research into the ‘Dutch’ bull. This project is a collaboration between the National Gallery of Ireland and the Mauritshuis. Head of a White Bull will be on display at the Mauritshuis between 29 March and end of May ’24. 

The conservators will employ the latest scientific technologies for the upcoming project, working in collaboration with researchers from the Rijksmuseum. X-radiography, infrared imaging, X-ray spectroscopy, canvas thread counting, pigment and layer structure analysis, and digital (3D) microscopy will help to reveal the many secrets of this world-famous painting.

“Our extensive study and restoration project will be like looking over Paulus Potter’s shoulder,” says Abbie Vandivere, Paintings Conservator at the Mauritshuis. “This is a dream project for me, both as an animal lover and as a conservator!”

Paulus Potter’s The Bull was one of the paintings displayed to the public immediately after Mauritshuis opened as a museum in 1822. In the 19th century, before Girl with a Pearl Earring was added to the collection, The Bull was the museum’s main attraction. What makes this painting so extraordinary is that Potter depicted such ordinary subjects as a bull, a farmer and other animals on this huge canvas. In the 17th century, only Biblical and mythological subjects and royalty would be depicted in such a huge and ‘distinguished’ format. But despite the size, the painter also paid a great deal of attention to the smallest details, such as the lark in the sky, the sun on the meadow and the flies around the bull’s back. Centuries later, The Bull rightly became the leading icon of Dutch naturalistic painting. 

Families and kids
A small presentation will introduce the examination and restoration of the painting to museum visitors, including a historic timeline of the life of The Bull. There will also be an interactive online public guide to the examination and restoration for families with kids. Once a week, visitors will have the opportunity to ask the conservators questions about their work.

The restoration will take place in Room 2 on the first floor of Mauritshuis.

The research phase, which will be open to the public, will be from 29th March until the end of May. The restoration phase will take place between June 2024 and the Autumn.

28th March 2024