The ultrafast evolution of the electric field within bacteriorhodopsin was measured by monitoring the absorption changes of a tryptophan residue after excitation of retinal. The Trp absorption decreases within the first 200 femtoseconds and then recovers on time scales typical for retinal isomerization and vibrational relaxation. A model of excitonic coupling between retinal and tryptophans shows that the signal reflects a gradual rise of the retinal difference dipole moment, which precedes and probably drives isomerization. The results suggest an intimate connection between the progressive dipole moment change and the retinal skeletal changes reported over the same time scale.