Public restoration of The Bull
Dec. 18, 2023
A Peek at Potter
Investigating The Bull
From 29 March 2024, museum visitors will be able to follow the examination and restoration of Potter’s The Bull live. This huge painting (the largest in the Mauritshuis collection) was last restored 50 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 Paulus 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, an anonymous private donor and Stichting Retourschip.
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 overpainting 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.
Preliminary research has revealed that the National Gallery of Ireland (Dublin) owns a painting that can be linked to The Bull. Paintings Conservator Jolijn Schilder of the Mauritshuis discovered that Potter once made a large painting (approx. 2.10 m x 1.70 m) depicting The Abduction of Europa. It turns out that the oval painting Head of a White Bull was once part of this larger painting -- much of which has been lost, leaving only this fragment. The two bulls are different colours, but the heads are depicted in a very similar way. As a result, the ‘Irish’ bull will be an invaluable research companion for the ‘Dutch’ bull. The art historical and technical research into the Head of the White Bull is a collaborative project between the National Gallery of Ireland and the Mauritshuis. Both bulls will be on view during the technical examination at the Mauritshuis between March and May 2024.
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.
29 March - End of May 2024: research phase (public)
Beginning of June 2024 - Autumn 2025: restoration phase (public)