During the early 1640s, the animals in Potter's paintings became increasingly naturalistic, and he seemed most interested in showing their underlying anatomical structure. Like drapery, the skin of the cows in these pictures, and in the present lot, seems to be stretched over the skeleton underneath. The recumbent cow with one of its forelegs extended forward, visible in this painting, first appears in Potter's work in his signed and dated landscape of 1642 now in the Château d'Uriège, France (see the catalogue of the exhibition, Paulus Potter, The Maurithuis, The Hague, 1994-95, p. 23, fig. 6). It recurs in his Landscape with a shepherdess and fluting shepherd of circa 1642-43 in the Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest (ibid., pp. 59-61, no. 2, illustrated), and both the recumbent and standing cow appear in his undated landscape of approximately the same date now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich (ibid., p. 24, fig. 9).
Probably the single most important influence on Potter was the Bambocciante painter, Pieter van Laer. Van Laer's paintings, and especially his 1636 print series of farm animals, had a significant influence on Potter and his contemporaries, and the accuracy of Potter's descriptions of nature and rural life seem to support Arnold Houbraken's statement that he often went out into the meadows to sketch. A sculpture of a recumbent cow in Jan Steen's Drawing Lesson, now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, CA, suggests that artists may have referred to sculpted or cast models, such as Adriaen van de Velde's Recumbent Cow (ibid., p. 25, fig. 11).
Various pentimenti are visible in the present painting: for example there is the outline of a sheep on the left hand side of the painting, and the outline of the black cow walking away from the front of the picture was also lowered at some stage.
Artistically, 1647 was a milestone in Potter's career. Almost a quarter of all the paintings known to us, are from that year, including not only the present painting but his most famous work, The Bull in the Mauritishuis, The Hague, the moody Cattle and Sheep in a Stormy Landscape, National Gallery, London, and Two Cows and a Bull in a Meadow, sold Sotheby's, London, 3 July 1996, lot 11 for £1,079,500.
A free copy of this composition in oil, with an added female figure in the right foreground, which is taken from a painting by Karel Dujardin, was painted by the famous Swiss pastellist Jean-Etienne Liotard, to whom the painting belonged circa 1758-60, and is now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (fig. 1).