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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Paulus Potter/A Farrier's Shop/1648,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed March 31, 2015).


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Farriers—blacksmiths who shoe horses—also served as veterinarians before that became a specialized profession. As the teeth of horses continue to grow throughout their lives, uneven wear leads to chewing problems, which in turn result in improper digestion and eventual malnutrition. As a remedy, farriers file down, or "float," the teeth, as seen in this painting of a terrified horse undergoing such a procedure.

A Farrier’s Shop, signed and dated "Paulus Potter f. 1648" on the lintel above the blacksmith’s forge, is an exceptional achievement for an artist only twenty-three years old. In a daring interplay of indoor and outdoor light effects, Potter contrasts the sparks flying from the red-hot forge inside the workshop with the sunshine streaming through the clouds and the morning fog lingering over the meadow.

Paulus Potter was trained by his father and quickly gained fame for his superb depictions of animal anatomy and psychology. He was a keen observer who never left the house without a small sketchbook in his pocket so that he could record interesting things he saw on his walks. Potter moved frequently, working in Delft, The Hague, and Amsterdam, where he died at age twenty-eight. He was a tireless worker who in his short life produced a considerable number of highly regarded paintings of animals in farmyards and fields.


According to Paulus Potter’s widow, the artist would put a small sketchbook in his pocket whenever he had time to take a walk. When he saw something that was intriguing or enjoyable and that might serve his purpose, he immediately sketched the subject.[1] This anecdote about Potter’s working process may well help explain how he came upon the idea to depict this intense little drama between man and animal outside a farrier’s shop, a subject no other Dutch artist ever depicted. One can only imagine that Potter, on one of his walks near the fields outside of The Hague, was attracted by the commotion caused by a horse having its teeth filed, or floated. A large metal instrument, known as a twitch, pinched the animal’s muzzle so that it would keep its mouth open.[2]  On such an occasion Potter must have seen the horse rearing back and pawing the air with its left foreleg. He would have noted the intense concentration of the old, bespectacled farrier as he braced himself to work the rasp, and the open-mouthed expression of his younger accomplice holding the restraint. He also may have witnessed the slack-jawed gaze of the young bystander, who, with hands stuffed in his pockets, looks up at the operation in amazement. Inside the shop, hard at work at his anvil, the blacksmith takes no more interest in the proceedings than do the dogs or the chickens scratching for food. Whether Potter recorded his impressions in his sketchbook or merely carried them home in his head, the subject was so vivid in his mind that he was able to create a work that captures the emotional intensity of the moment.

Although the basic compositional scheme is one that Potter had developed in the previous year, particularly in Figures with Horses by a Stable, signed and dated 1647 (Philadelphia Museum of Art),[3] this painting is unique in its vivid characterization of a scene. To enhance the dramatic effect Potter situated the action along a shaded diagonal wedge formed by the farrier shop and the small wooden structure attached to it, known as the brake. Long shadows on the ground and the brightly illuminated white horse behind the central group of figures accentuate the chiaroscuro contrasts between foreground and background. Gray smoke from the blacksmith’s fire rises from the chimney and merges into the dark clouds of the windswept sky.

It is not known what influences inspired Potter to develop this compositional scheme, although enough similarities exist between it and paintings by Pieter van Laer (Dutch, c. 1592 - 1642) and Isack van Ostade (Dutch, 1621 - 1649) to suggest that Potter might have been familiar with works by those artists (see, for example, Van Ostade’s The Halt at the Inn and Workmen before an Inn). Indeed, Potter apparently spent some time in Haarlem in the mid-1640s. It was only after he joined the Saint Luke’s Guild in Delft in 1646, however, that he began to incorporate contre-jour light effects, which he would have learned from Italianate painters.[4]

As is evident from the anecdote about his walks with his sketchbook, and also from his drawings [fig. 1] and etchings, Potter observed the world carefully and recorded his impressions without idealization. A comparison of the study of a horse in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts and the white horse in A Farrier’s Shop suggests that he composed his paintings on the basis of such drawings. Presumably, comparable studies from life also existed for other figures in this painting.

The intense realism of Potter’s style was particularly appreciated in the nineteenth century, and his works commanded enormous sums of money.[5] This painting, for example, fetched 15,000 francs in the Perregaux sale of 1841, perhaps in part because of the enthusiastic, and extensive, description in the sale catalog. The special place reserved for the painting within this esteemed artist’s oeuvre is particularly evident in the concluding sentence of the catalog entry: “En dernière analyse, c’est un tableau de Paul Potter aussi parfait de coloris, de faire, de sentiment, de verité, que les plus beaux qu’il ait jamais enfantes, avec l’avantage inappreciable d’une composition plus savante, plus variée et plus animée.”[6]

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


center left in transom frame above doorway: paulus potter f. 1648

  • Inscription

Marks and Labels



Dominique Bertrand Clemens, Ghent; (his sale, Salle de la Confrerie de Saint George, Ghent, 23 September 1777 and days following, no. 49; bought in). his brother, Jacques Clemens, canon of St. Bavo's Cathedral [1713-1779], Ghent; (his sale, Maison Mortuaire, Ghent, 21 June 1779 and days following, no. 212); Neijman, Amsterdam. Johan Philip de Monté, Utrecht; his widow; (her sale, A. Lamme, Rotterdam, 4-5 July 1825, no. 1); (Lambert Jean Nieuwenhuys, Brussels).[1] Comte François-Alexandre-Charles Perregaux [1791-1837], Paris; (his estate sale, Galerie Le Brun, Paris, 8-9 December 1841, no. 26); George. Madame Autran, Marseilles, by 1867. (Charles Sedelmeyer, Paris), in 1898. M. Rodolphe Kann [d. 1905], Paris and Marseilles, by 1900; purchased 1907 with the entire Kann collection by (Duveen Brothers, Inc., London, New York, and Paris); sold 1909 to Peter A.B. Widener, Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; inheritance from Estate of Peter A.B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; gift 1942 to NGA.

Exhibition History

Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters and Deceased Masters of the British School. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1908, no. 66.
The Pleasures of Paulus Potter's Countryside, Mauritshuis, The Hague, 1994-1995, no. 13, repro. (catalogue titled Paulus Potter: Paintings, drawings and etchings, by Amy Walsh, Edwin Buijsen, and Ben Broos).


Smith, John. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters. 9 vols. London, 1829-1842: 5(1834):144, no. 63.
Nieuwenhuys, Charles J. A Review of the Lives and Works of Some of the Most Eminent Painters. London, 1834: 186-188.
Blanc, Charles. Le trésor de la curiosité. 2 vols. Paris, 1857–1858: 2(1858):448.
Westrheene Wz., Tobias van. Paulus Potter: sa vie et ses oeuvres. The Hague, 1867: 178, no. 22.
Sedelmeyer, Charles. Illustrated Catalogue of 300 Paintings by Old Masters of the Dutch, Flemish, Italian, French, and English schools, being some of the principal pictures which have at various time formed part of the Sedelmeyer Gallery. Paris, 1898: no. 108, repro.
Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. 8 vols. Translated by Edward G. Hawke. London, 1907-1927: 4(1911):654, no. 154.
Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. Beschreibendes und kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke der hervorragendsten holländischen Maler des XVII. Jahrhunderts. 10 vols. Esslingen and Paris, 1907-1928: 4(1911):679, no. 154.
Sedelmeyer, Charles. Catalogue of Rodolphe Kann Collection. 2 vols. Paris, 1907: 1:viii, repro. 64, 65.
Royal Academy of Arts. Exhibition of works by the old masters, and by deceased masters of the British School, including a collection of water colours. Exh. cat. Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1908: 19, no. 66.
"The Farrier's Shop by Paul Potter." Connoisseur 20 (March 1908): 20, cover repro.
Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis, and Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Pictures in the collection of P. A. B. Widener at Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania: Early German, Dutch & Flemish Schools. Philadelphia, 1913: unpaginated, repro.
Paintings in the Collection of Joseph Widener at Lynnewood Hall. Intro. by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, 1923: unpaginated, repro.
Paintings in the Collection of Joseph Widener at Lynnewood Hall. Intro. by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, 1931: 98, repro.
Arps-Aubert, Rudolf von. Die Entwicklung des reinen Tierbildes in der Kunst des Paulus Potter. Halle, 1932: 37, no. 28.
Waldmann, Emil. "Die Sammlung Widener." Pantheon 22 (November 1938): 338.
National Gallery of Art. Works of art from the Widener collection. Washington, 1942: 6.
National Gallery of Art. Paintings and Sculpture from the Widener Collection. Washington, 1948 (reprinted 1959): ix, 54, repro.
National Gallery of Art. Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. Washington, 1965: 104.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 92, repro.
National Gallery of Art. European paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. Washington, 1975: 274, repro.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 291, no. 380, color repro., as by Paul Potter.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. Washington, 1985: 317, repro.
Walsh, Amy L. "Paulus Potter: His works and their meaning." Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, New York, 1985: 215-222, 228, 291, 338-339, 417, repro.
Sutton, Peter C. A Guide to Dutch Art in America. Washington and Grand Rapids, 1986: 306.
Sutton, Peter C. Northern European Paintings in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia, 1990: 240, repro.
Walsh, Amy L., Edwin Buijsen, and Ben P. J. Broos. Paulus Potter: Paintings, drawings, and etchings. Exh. cat. Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague. Zwolle, 1994: 33, 92-94, no. 13, repro.
Buijsen, Edwin. "Het Paard in de Mond Gekeken: Een veterinaire kijk op de schilderijen van Paulus Potter." Mauritshuis in Focus 8 (May 1995): 24-26, fig.12.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 198-200, color repro. 199.
Liedtke, Walter A., Michiel Plomp, and Axel Rüger. Vermeer and the Delft school. Exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; National Gallery, London. New Haven, 2001: 332-334, fig. 268.

Technical Summary

The cradled-panel support consists of a single board with a vertical grain. Worm tunnels are visible in the X-radiograph and on the back of the panel, and a small vertical hairline crack is found along the bottom edge, just right of center. Vertical striations are visible from the brush application of the moderately thick white ground. Opaque paint is applied in light passages with impasted highlights, while dark passages are thinly glazed in a series of translucent layers.

Pentimenti of a chicken and a stick are visible in the lower right corner, and minor changes were made in the legs of the standing dog. The sky and dark passages are moderately abraded, and there are scattered small losses and local abrasions, particularly along the right edge in a vertical band. The painting was treated in 1981 to remove discolored varnish and inpainting, although insoluble overpaint was left in place in some areas.

Related IconClass Terms

chicken +used symbolically
man struggling with animals

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A Farrier's Shop
  • Comparable Figure
    [fig. 1] Paulus Potter, Study of a Horse, pencil, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham
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  • [1]

    Arnold Houbraken, De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen, 3 vols. (The Hague, 1753; reprint, Amsterdam, 1976), 2:129. Houbraken received this information in a letter written by Nicolaas van Reenen, the son of Potter's widow. The full text quoted by Houbraken is: “Dat hy zyn Moeder dikwerf heeft hooren zeggen: Dat zy haar Man nooit ledig heeft gezien; dat hy zeIf wanneer hy een uur voor haar over had om een zyn zak by zig droeg; om als hy iets zag dat geestig was, en in zyn kraam konde dienen, staks dat voorwerp af te schetsen.”

  • [2]

    Much confusion has existed in old references about the exact operation being undertaken by the old man in the red shirt. In the Clemens sale of 1777 in Ghent it was thought that he was giving a cure to the horse (“fait une cure à un cheval”). In the Johan Philip de Monté sale, the action was described as “bettering the teeth” (“de tanden te verbeteren”). The catalog text in the Perregaux sale of 1841 described the man as examining the horse’s mouth with an iron probe (“examiner, avec une sonde de fer, la bouche à demi ouverte de l’animal”). When the painting was exhibited as part of the Rudolphe Kann collection in Paris in 1907 (see Charles Sedelmeyer, Catalogue of Rodolphe Kann Collection, 2 vols. [Paris, 1907]), it was thought that the man was extracting a tooth, an interpretation that was maintained in the Widener catalogs. Amy L. Walsh (“Paulus Potter: His Works and Their Meaning,” PhD diss. [Columbia University, 1985], 92) has noted that horses’ teeth are filed or floated because they continue to grow as the animals age. She interprets this farrier and his apprentice as swindlers who are filing the horse’s teeth to make the animal appear younger than it is. Filing a horse’s teeth is, however, a standard bit of care for the animal as the uneven wear of unfloated teeth can cause disruptions in proper digestion and thus lead to malnutrition.

  • [3]

    See inventory no. E1924–3–17, from Philadelphia Museum of Art.

  • [4]

    Potter first used contre-jour light in his Cows Driven to Pasture, 1647, in the Residenzgalerie, Salzburg. For an illustration of this work see Peter C. Sutton et al., Masters of Seven­teenth-Century Dutch Landscape Painting (Boston, 1987), 418, fig. 1.

  • [5]

    John Smith, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters, 9 vols. (London, 1829–1842), 5:117, noted the high prices that Potter’s paintings commanded.

  • [6]

    Perregaux sale, Paris, November 25, 1841, 52 (see Provenance). (“In the final analysis, this is a painting by Paul Potter that is as perfect in its colors, its execution, its mood, [and] its veracity as the most beautiful he ever created, with the invaluable advantage of a more erudite, varied, and animated composition.”)