Horns of a dilemma (continued) – Frank McNally on a Dutch-Irish art mystery, now being investigated in The Hague

A long-missing artwork and its partial rediscovery

Paulus Potter’s De Stier (“The Bull”), from 1647, being analysed in the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague

In The Hague’s lovely Mauritshuis gallery last week, I chanced upon the scene of a Dutch-Irish detective story, involving a long-missing artwork and its partial rediscovery.

By extension, the case also involves the alleged kidnap and rape of a legendary Phoenician princess by the god Zeus, a repeat sexual offender of Greek mythology. But we’ll come back to that angle later.

First the project now running at the Mauritshuis, in which two paintings by the Dutch artist Paulus Potter (1625-1654) are being restored in public view.

Potter’s life was drastically shorted by TB. But he was prolific while he lasted, painting almost 100 works before his death aged 28. Chief among these is the monumental De Stier (“The Bull”), from 1647, depicting a group of farm animals and their herder in a field.


The largest painting in the Mauritshuis, this is now being analysed in The Hague alongside a much smaller work, borrowed from the National Gallery of Ireland, featuring the “Head of a White Bull” (its title) garlanded with flowers.

The latter used to puzzle experts, unsure if it was a simple agricultural scene or something more symbolic.

The then director of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum went so far as to declare on a visit to Ireland in 1968 that it was not by Potter at all, suggesting Jacop Cuyp as the real painter.

But art historians have long known that Potter’s list of works included a large one of whereabouts unknown, depicting the goddess Europa sitting on a bull.

A Dutch newspaper from 1664 described it as featuring “Europa, on a wreathed white bull, six feet [long] and seven and a half feet tall”.

More than a century later, in 1785, the picture was also mentioned in a Paris auction catalogue. After that, it disappeared.

Europa, as you might guess, is the woman for whom the modern continent was named, from about the sixth century onwards. That’s her in the watermark of your euro banknotes, borrowed from her likeness on an ancient Greek vase in the Louvre.

In fact, as a euro security feature, she puts in a double shift. It you tilt the face of a note towards you, she also miraculously appears in the hologram window near the top of the silver strip.

Anyway, central to the Europa legend was her seduction or rape (the terms were interchangeable in Greek myth) by Zeus, who had taken the disguise of a bull – a tame, white one.

She was first tempted to caress the friendly animal’s flanks, then to sit on his back, at which point the bull ran into the sea and swam them both to Crete, where he revealed his identity and made her queen.

In most painted or written versions, whether it’s described as an “abduction”, “seduction”, or “rape”, however, Europa is portrayed as a willing participant, who gradually loses all fear and surrenders herself to the Cretan adventure.

Hence a detail from Ovid’s poem on the subject, in which she steadies herself against the waves: “. . . Her right hand grasped/A horn, the other floated upon his back/Her fluttering tunic floated in the breeze.”

But back to “Head of a White Bull” which, having never previously been mentioned in connection with Potter, first surfaced at a London auction in 1807 under the title “Jupiter in the form of a Bull”.

Jupiter was of course the Roman version of Zeus. The painting then changed hands several times in the next six decades before being acquired by the NGI in 1868.

Along the way, in an 1834 “catalogue raisonné” on Potter, a critic fretted: “It is difficult to decide whether Head of a White Bull was intended to represent the metamorphosed lover of Europa, a sacrificial offering, or a prize bull of Holland.”

The mysteries about the painting deepened in the years after the 1968 revisionism by the Rijksmuseum director. For a while, it was listed as being by a mere “imitator of Potter”.

But the project in the Mauritshuis is now revealing all, or soon will. Infrared reflectography has already shown “the overpainted torso of a woman sitting sidesaddle on the bull”.

A sash on her dress is bound with “what appears to be an ancient Roman fede brooch of clasping hands”. And just as in Ovid, the woman has one of her hands “wrapped around the bull’s horn”.

As summed up by the National Gallery’s account of the restoration – which includes a nice “swipe” feature, whereby you can do the infrared reflectography yourself with the touch of a finger – the overpainted original “is typical of the iconography of The Abduction of Europa, as seen in early modern European art”.

So not only can the NGI’s painting be finally and indisputably attributed to Potter. It is now known to be a fragment of his lost larger painting, last recorded at the Paris auction in 1785. What happened to the rest of that, and why, must be a whole other story.