Published: August 31, 2011
The horse has been a powerful subject for artists since art began. The passion that launched mysterious cave paintings of horses some 20,000 years ago continues unabated today, with contemporary artwork of every conceivable style.
Man’s reliance on horses for farming, transportation, war, exploration and sport has stimulated a rich legacy of equestrian images. Over the years, horse art has assumed many guises †charming archaic bronzes and handsome Chinese terracotta figures, richly detailed manuscript illuminations from Arabic and European sources, Middle Ages depictions of horses bred for war and agriculture and grand equestrian paintings by Renaissance and baroque artists, whose interest in horses was as great as their concern with human forms.
Around the middle of the Eighteenth Century, George Stubbs became the premier British equestrian artist after he created remarkably precise anatomical studies of unprecedented realism. These celebrated paintings marked a turning point in the history of horse art. Stubbs’s accuracy was surpassed only after the photographic experiments of Eadweard Muybridge revealed new truths about horses in motion.
Some of the great portraits in art history have been paintings of horses, perhaps most famously Stubbs’s magnificent portrait of “Whistlejacket,” 1762. This painting of an aristocrat’s mount, set against a plain background to focus attention on the horse, is life-size †9 feet tall †and highly animated. The stunning image highlights the horse’s sleek musculature, the magnificent sheen of his coat, his piercing eyes and palpable energy and strength.
Although American owners and breeders must have been as keen as their British counterparts to see their best horses on canvas, there is little evidence of equine portrait painting in the United States before the rather primitive work of Bostonian Alvan Fisher in 1822. Thereafter, artists of all styles, ambitions and missions portrayed the horse for posterity in a wide variety of manners and media. American painters recorded the beauty and power of thoroughbreds and Western horses in portraits, in action on racecourses and out West, and in landscapes.
The best-known American equestrian artists include N.C. Wyeth, the preeminent illustrator, who began his career with an animated view of a bucking bronco, and Western artists Frederic Remington (also a sculptor) and Charles M. Russell, who immortalized the role of horses in the westward movement and thereafter. More recently, artists have tended to focus on the drama and excitement of thoroughbred horse racing, often paying equal attention to sheen of jockey silks and horses’ coats and the exertions of horse and rider.
In keeping with continuing interest in this timeless and much-loved subject, the Bruce Museum has drawn 30 artworks from its permanent collection for an exhibition that encompasses equestrian images from throughout the ages. “Saddle Up! Horsing Around at the Bruce Museum” is on view through September 25. The exhibition offers insights into unique partnerships formed between humans and horses, along with images that underscore the majestic strength and beauty of this treasure of the animal kingdom.
“Saddle Up!” is organized around four basic themes: work horses, race horses, sport horses and resting and wild horses. Sections include such pertinent objects as paintings, works on paper, sculpture, photographs and memorabilia.
For many years, oxen were employed to plow, harrow and till fields around the world. The invention of new agricultural machinery in the Eighteenth Century prompted the use of heavy horses that were stronger and faster than the ox. These work horses, with their links to agrarian endeavors, stimulated depictions by artists. As horse historian John Fairley has written, “The glorious might of the heavy horse, refined and nurtured over two centuries and paraded annually at the county fairs and shows of America and England&ttracted as much artistic passion as any of the finer breeds.”
William Gordon Shields’s photograph “Farmer tilling the land with horse,” dated around 1910, captures the classic image of the hardworking farmer guiding his sturdy horses preparing soil for planting. A quite different role for work horses is suggested by George Wharton Edwards’s pencil and tempera depiction of “Shrimp Fisherman La Penne,” as a fisherman lugs his wicker basket, hopefully full of plump shrimp, astride his muscular steed. Other horsemen on similar missions emerge from the water in the distance.
Other work activities for horses †hauling artillery in pre-World War II combat drills and serving as mounts for urban police †are documented in this section.
Most familiar is the omnipresent role of hardy steeds in all manner of activity on the Western frontier and among cowboys into the Twentieth Century, as embodied in “Fall Round-up,” a 1919 oil painting by prolific artist Carl Rungius (1869‱958), who was born in Germany and painted most of his career in the western United States and Canada.
His canvases, often depicting animals in their natural environment and man and animal battling the forces of nature, earned him a reputation as an important animal painter and the first career wildlife artist in North America. Typical of Rungius, “Fall Roundup” offers a high-keyed, romantic view of riders and horses amid an unspoiled Western landscape.
The Greeks recorded horse racing from the earliest times, and such races in the Olympics were renowned throughout the ancient world. Artwork depicting these events suggests the high quality of the bloodstock and the magnificence of racing venues. Roman chariot races provided thrills and spills for equestrian artists.
Indeed, all over the world, the sporting use of horses seems to have flourished wherever two riders wanted to compete. In America, racing was common up and down streets of early New England settlements. Later, prominent painters like Edgar Degas in France made horse races frequent themes in their work. “Even today,” says Fairley, “the horse provides what are perhaps the ultimate thrills of speed, daring and bravery.”
Horse racing is represented in the exhibition by several unusual objects, notably a hand carved Meerschaum pipe commissioned by John Welles Coggeshall, a prominent Rhode Island textile manufacturer who was an avid racehorse breeder. The amber-stemmed pipe with a finely carved head pays homage to Coggeshall’s famous trotter Directum, described as the “fleetest racer in the state, holding the title and cup for 1918.”
Also included in this section are locomotion frames †two in profile and one head-on †of horses galloping under the watchful eye of Eadweard Muybridge’s camera. English-born Muybridge (1830‱904), who began as a landscape photographer in San Francisco and the American West, set out to determine whether a racehorse in motion took all four feet off the ground simultaneously. He developed the zoopraxiscope †combining the rotating elements of a children’s toy, the zoetrope, and a “magic lantern” projector †that proved that horses do lose contact with the ground. The Bruce images, printed in an influential publication, Animal Locomotion, in 1887, represent refinements of Muybridge’s earlier experiments; they were precursors to motion pictures.
Sport horses, whether engaged in fox hunts, polo or shows, have been attractive subjects for artists. In the show, a grand set in oil and another in aquatint prints document the color and excitement British artists brought to the subject of fox hunts. Combining scenes of riders in red jackets, white breeches and top hats, and elegant horses, with yapping hounds and expansive landscapes, hunt scenes brought out the best in England’s sporting artists.
A highlight is the set of four paintings by D. Wolstonholme (1757‱837), “The Chase †Fox Hunting Scenes,” which records the progress of a formal Eighteenth Century fox hunt. From pursuit to capture, the physical exertion of man, horse and hound is apparent, along with the thrill of the chase and the idyllic setting under cloud-filled skies. In other fox hunt pictures, the inclusion of images of dramatic pratfalls by riders added to the appeal of such oils to patrons and suggested why prints of such paintings had enormous appeal to modest householders.
Horse sculptures, popular on both sides of the Atlantic, are represented in the show by a charming, sensitive bronze by Frenchman Pierre Jules Mene (1810‱877). In “Jument Jouant avec un chien,” a friendly horse leans down to share nuzzles with a small dog.
A painting by Elmer MacRae (1875‱953), son-in-law of the owners of the historic circa 1730 Bush-Holley House in Cos Cob, Conn., “Railroad Bridge, Winter,” 1907, shows a view from the venerable house across the Mianus River. In the snowy foreground a sturdy horse pulls a sleigh that appears loaded with youngsters out for a joy ride.
The continuing appeal of equine competitions and the ribbons and silverware awarded winners is underscored in a busy lithograph, “Greentree’s Slow Gin,” 1972, by Richard Thorpe McLean (b 1934). It is hard to tell if the owner or the horse is prouder of all these honors.
The section on “Resting and Wild Horses” includes three meerschaum pipes, late Nineteentharly Twentieth Century, with images of horses being attacked by wolves or simply roaming wild.
“Polo Ponies,” a pencil drawing by German artist Max Liebermann (1847‱935), focuses on the crisply outlined figures of a group of four sleek, alert steeds. They are key participants in the elegant and highly competitive sport of polo. George Bellows and Randall Davey, a polo player himself, executed paintings that reflect the movement, tension and the almost balletic grace of polo matches.
Simka Simkhovitch’s “Early Morning in Connecticut,” 1940, evokes a scene of two horses grazing near Greenwich Avenue, not that far from the Bruce Museum. It is a nostalgic vignette of a long-ago time when Greenwich still contained space for horses, albeit adjacent to telephone poles and commercial buildings.
Looking to the future, as horse art historian John Baskett has written, “One thing is certain: there will always be men and women, some with an artist’s eye, who keep horses close to their hearts and who identify in the animal’s make-up a sense of freedom, strength and nobility.”
The Bruce Museum is at One Museum Drive. For information, 203-869-0376 or www.brucemuseum.org .
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm