Horses in Art, An Ancient Tradition

The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur
Credit : Archive

Wednesday 01 March - 16h37 | Lulu Kyriacou

Horses in Art, An Ancient Tradition

Horses have featured in art, especially painting, since man first domesticated them. They feature on the friezes of ancient Greece, adorn the walls of Egypt's pharaohs and the cave paintings of prehistoric man in Europe. In this article we will look at some of the greatest examples of equestrian painting and in the next couple of weeks we will turn our attention to other artistic forms.

 - Horses in Art, An Ancient Tradition

Whistlejacket in London's National Gallery
Credit : Archive

The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur is regarded by many horse lovers as the greatest ever equestrian painting.  It shows the horse market held in Paris on the tree-lined Boulevard de l’Hôpital, near the asylum of Salpêtrière, which is visible in the left background and where Boheur visited the market twice a week dressed as a man (for which she had to get police permission) so as not to draw attention while making her preliminary sketches. There is a small version of the painting at London's Tate Gallery but the full size final version, which measures a colossal 96 1/4 x 199 1/2 inches (244.5 x 506.7 cm) and hangs in New York's Metropolitan Museum.  Bonheur called it her own Parthenon frieze and the massive perceron horses thundering down the boulevard are certainly reminiscent of the sculptures that adorn the Athens monument.

Whistlejacket by George Stubbs
​George Stubbs needs little introduction in the art world and his great paintings are many.  Mares and Foals In a Landscape is possibly the best known, and his portraits of famus racehorses of his time are also celebrated. But Whistlejacket is in a class of its own. Almost full size, the stallion stares at you as he rears up against a neutral background. Whistlejacket was foaled in 1749 and his most famous victory was in a race over four miles for 2000 guineas at York in August, 1759. Stubbs's huge picture was painted in about 1762 for the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham who owned him. It is said that originally the painting was going to be in a more traditional pose but as he was walked up and down in front of the artist who was making sketches, he stopped dead on seeing one and reared up.  The painting was saved for the British nation by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and it's £10 million price tag was a British record when it was purchased in 1997.  


PICTURES WE CAN ALL IDENTIFY WITH..... - Horses in Art, An Ancient Tradition

Automedon struggles to control the horses of Achilles

There are some images of horses that horse people can all identify with. One of those also hangs in London's National Gallery. Van Dyke is not particularly noted for painting horses but every rider can admire the magnificence of the steed in the Dutch master's portrait of King Charles 1 here . It is another large canvas and probably most riders hope that they look similarly dashing and elegant as they ride out.

Automedon With the Horses of Achilles
​This is a painting for everyone who has had to lead up or turn out a fresh horse or two. Most of us would probably be wearing more clothes than Automedon, the young man who was the charioteer to ancient Greek hero Achilles, but the difficulty he is having in restraining the immortal horses Balios and Xanthos is clear to see. Van Dyke also painted these two legendary animals but in his painting they are tame looking greys; in this one, the artist Regnault wanted them to look as if they were fresh and keen to get into battle with their master, and it is easy for the viewer to sympathise with poor Automedon being dragged onwards!


LESSER KNOWN, STILL BEAUTIFUL........ - Horses in Art, An Ancient Tradition

Racehorses At Longchamp, Edgar Degas

Off the beaten track in London, there is a relatively small art gallery open to the public called the Wallace Collection. Among the many great works there is a smallish canvas by an artist called Edwin Landseer who was very highly sought after for his portraits of animals. Quite where he got his inspiration for The Arab Tent ( here ) is unclear but it was one of the most expensive paintings ever bought in the 19th century and the detail is equisite. The beautiful mare with her young foal, surrounded by other animals associated with royalty such as greyhounds and leopards lacks nothing in details.

Degas, dancing girls and dancing horses
Edgar Degas needs little introduction when it comes to paintings and sculptures of dancers but his interest in another form of athlete is less well known. However the French master was a huge fan of horse racing and painted many studies. Racehorses At Longchamp was just one of many but it is easy to sense the restless movement of the horses waiting to start the race at the famous track in Paris where there is still racing to this day.

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