Paulus Potter was born into an artistic family, and exhibited a precocious talent for the paintbrush as a young lad. His first professional painting is dated 1640, when he was only 15.
But rather than follow in the footsteps of his 17th-century artistic elders and hone his craft in landscape, portraiture, and other character studies, Potter sought inspiration from a different sort of living creature—animals.
Potter excelled when it came to painting animals, and he set the standard across Europe for the realistic portrayal of four-legged living creatures. His favorite and most prolific subject were cows.
But one painting considered a superior example of his skill in the naturalistic portrait of those hefty landlubbers ended up in a not-so-natural location.
Today, Potter’s “Large Herd of Oxen” lives at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, sealed up in the cargo hold of the Vrouw Maria, which sank after hitting a storm as it sailed towards Russia to deliver the painting to its new owner, Catherine the Great.
The canvas is considered lost, but a tiny kernel of hope remains. If an attempt is ever made to recover the treasure in the ship’s cargo hold, maybe, just maybe, the canvas will be salvageable.
Potter’s career was cut short when he died of tuberculosis at the age of 28, but even with just over a decade of work to his name, he left his mark on the European art world and became one of the premier Dutch painters of his day. His paintings were sought out by the leading patrons of Dutch society, and not always to his advantage; in 1651, he was sued by the Dutch Royal Court after he failed to complete a paid commission.
His talent was natural and inescapable. “He is said to have wandered the Dutch countryside, sketchbook in hand, equally sensitive to how farm animals behave at different times of day and to light’s vicissitudes from morning to dusk,” the Getty Museum writes. “Few of his contemporaries were more attuned to nature’s moods or to the timeless harmony of beast, landscape, and weather.”
Today, Potter may not have the name recognition of his fellow countrymen like Rembrandt, but through the 19th century, his paintings were a prominent acquisition for leading collectors, particularly those interested in Dutch art.
“In the 1800s, Potter’s life-size ‘The Young Bull’ was as famous as Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch,’” according to the Getty.
So it was perhaps no surprise that when a Potter lot came up for auction in 1771, an agent working on behalf of Catherine the Great, one of the predominant art collectors of her day, snapped it up.
The painting in question was “Large Herd of Oxen,” which turn-of-the-19th-century author Frank Cundall said “passed for one of the masterpieces of the artist.” Unlike other lost works, there are no reproductions or images of what this piece once looked like. All that remains are written descriptions.
According to Cundall in his book The Landscape and Pastoral Painters of Holland, “In the foreground on the left was an old shepherd with his dog; before him was a herd of ten oxen which occupied nearly the whole of the canvas, and were represented in various attitudes with great variety of colour. In the midst of the distant fields full of cattle, passed a carriage drawn by two horses and followed by a horseman; on the right were two trees, behind which the view was shut in by a hedge, which extended to groups of trees hiding the houses of a village of which the tower was seen.”
“Large Herd of Oxen” was owned by Gerrit Braamkamp, a lumber merchant in Amsterdam who amassed an impressive collection of Dutch and Flemish art he called the “Temple of Art.”
The posthumous auction of his collection in 1771 was the event of the season in high-society Amsterdam, and Catherine the Great was not going to miss her chance to snap up a few new Dutch masterpieces.
By this time, Catherine had been the Empress of Russia for nearly a decade after launching a coup against her not-so-dear husband Peter III, who was assassinated by supporters of the revolution soon after his abdication.
Catherine could be ruthless and power hungry. But she was also a strong leader who had an ambitious vision for Russia. She wanted to make the country a player on the world stage; she wanted to make Russia great.
In addition to the normal methods of statecraft and diplomacy, the self-proclaimed “glutton for art” used her impressive eye as an innovative means to establish her country as an equal and worthy power among her European adversaries.
“Her art collecting initially started for political reasons, but she actually becomes a knowledgeable and passionate collector, owning 4,000 Old Master paintings,” Susan Jacques, author of The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia, told Christian Science Monitor. “She was as passionate about art as her foreign conquests and love affairs.”
The result was eventually the impressive Hermitage Museum, which is housed in the Winter Palace and remains an acclaimed art institution and tourist attraction in St. Petersburg.
Catherine the Great studiously built up this collection piece by piece, and in 1771, she turned her sharp eye towards the Braamkamp auction lot, “Large Herd of Oxen,” which her agent snapped up for 9,050 florins. He also bought her a Gabriel Metsu piece and Gerard ter Borch’s “Woman at Her Toilette,” among other works. Shortly, thereafter, the spoils of auction were loaded onto a Dutch ship destined for the motherland.
The Vrouw Maria had quite a haul when she left Amsterdam on Sept. 5, 1771. In addition to the Dutch masterpieces destined for the walls of the Winter Palace, the ship carried a load of goods including coffee beans, cotton, indigo dye, and other treasures including furniture, ivory, and silver.
It made one stop in the Danish port of Helsingor, the home of the castle that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to declare its cargo and pay taxes on the haul (minus the paintings, which, for reasons that remain unknown, were allowed to pass duty free).
Once again, the two-masted ship set out to sea. Soon after, though, she ran into a massive storm. The crew battled the elements for several days, even successfully recovering from running ashore on a small island, but on October 9, they were forced to abandon ship once and for all. The Vrouw Maria was filling too quickly with water and the pumps were rendered useless after sailors discovered that the coffee beans had escaped their bag and clogged the pipes.
Every soul on board escaped the Vrouw Maria, but they were able to take very little of the cargo with them. When they came back several days later, the ship was resting peacefully on the bottom of the sea floor off the coast of Finland, its treasures secure and unreachable inside.
Catherine and her representatives tried at first to recover her water-logged treasures, but they soon gave up. Finland is still struggling today with how to salvage the ship’s treasures; in the 18th century, the task would have been near impossible. With that last dash of hope, the Vrouw Maria and her cargo slipped from the world and, with time, also from memory.
Fast forward 200 years, and a historian doing research in the national archives of Sweden discovered that there once was a ship full of Catherine the Great’s treasures that sunk off the coast of Finland.
According to author and historian Sean Munger, it took over two decades for the researcher who first rediscovered the ship’s existence, and his eventual partner who was an underwater explorer, to locate the wreckage. A short legal battle ensued, and Finland was given possession and control over the shipwreck.
Since then, the Vrouw Maria has been a point of pride and a national treasure for Finland, where the wreck continues to be studied and explored. But, so far, efforts at discovering what lies in the cargo hold and salvaging those goods has been unsuccessful.
And while the ship’s hold remains out of reach, so too does the fate of Potter’s beloved oxen.
While explorers may not yet know what the Vrouw Maria holds, what they do know is that the Baltic Sea has much lower salinity levels than other bodies of saltwater.
So, a very small glint of light remains: if the paintings were painstakingly packaged when they set sail from Amsterdam, there is a chance—a very remote chance, but one that exists all the same—that some of the great works may have survived a shipwreck and 200 years undersea in a state that could be restored.
And if that is the case, there is a glimmer of hope that Potter’s “Large Herd of Oxen” may just be able to be brought back to life.