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Still life of fruit and a pie on a table

The Royal Collection has a stunning collection of seventeenth century Dutch art

Paulus Potter (Enkhuizen 1625-Amsterdam 1654)

"The Young Thief " 1649

RCIN 400527

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This painting offers a narrative which can be easily read. It is a beautiful summer’s evening; a landowner rides over wide fertile meadows to visit one of the farms on the estate; the farmer’s wife is milking. Suddenly the peace of this rural idyll is shattered: a dog starts barking; a boy screams; a cockerel crows in alarm and a sheep bleats. All this because the boy has stolen two new-born puppies.

At one level this is a simple lesson in how not to approach any animal with young. At another it illustrates a more universal principle – that each species loves its own. Just as the farmer’s wife loves her thieving son, so the stallion loves its mare and can be seen nuzzling in the stable; the cows and the sheep similarly pair off two-by-two. Though this narrative was described in the 1819 inventory of paintings at Carlton House, this modern Aesop’s fable is much less appreciated now. The overstated expressions seem to us more appropriate for children’s illustration or even animation than painting.