The horse’s bold brush with the world of art

George Stubbs, Whistlejacket (c. 1762)
George Stubbs, Whistlejacket (c. 1762)

Horses are a prominent feature throughout the long history of art, from ancient cave paintings in France to depictions of some of the great moments in human history. English professor Charles Caramello explores the horse’s role in art.

Horse enthusiasts tend to love not only equines, but also artistic and literary depictions of them. On that premise, I would like to offer a few notes on the horse in painting. Illustrative rather than comprehensive, they are meant only to provide a few leads and to encourage readers to add their own.

From the cave paintings at Lascaux, in France, where equines predominate among animal images, to Picasso’s Guernica (1937), his vast mural elegy on the bombing of Guernica, centered on the image of a screaming horse, the equine has been totemic and iconic in Western (and world) painting.

This makes perfect sense for at least three reasons. First, for millennia, the horse has played a critical material role in human transportation and warfare, labor and sport, and has enjoyed universal if varying value as commodity, capital investment, and sign of social and economic status. Second, the horse has a beauty that lends itself inherently to visual art: all muscle and musculature, power and speed, elegance of form and subtlety of hue, the horse makes an ideal subject whether in action or at rest. And third, the horse haunts our dreams: at once fleshy and ethereal, worldly and other-worldly, the horse possesses magic that has gripped humans since the earliest encounters of the two species.

Franz Marc, Large Blue Horses (1911)
Franz Marc, Large Blue Horses (1911)

Recent books surveying the history of equine art abound, notably John Baskett, The Horse in Art (2006), Tamsin Pickeral, The Horse: 30,000 Years of the Horse in Art (2009), and the massive collection by many hands, and curated by Jean-Louis Gouraud, The Horse: From Cave Paintings to Modern Art (2010).

Contemporary exhibitions of equine art, and equine accouterments, are fairly common, such as The Armored Horse in Europe, 1480-1620, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2005), and Picasso: Horses, Museo Picasso Malaga (2010).

Paintings and portraits of horses figure prominently in Renaissance through Modern art, ranging in the past couple of centuries from equestrian portraits by Jacques-Louis David and Théodore Géricault and Thoroughbred racing scenes by Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, to the vivid equine studies by Franz Marc that gave the artistic circle and journal Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) their name, and Picasso’s vast body of work, where the horse is a pervasive thematic and formal element.

Alfred de Dreux, Une amazone en Forêt (nd)
Alfred de Dreux, Une amazone en Forêt (nd)

Though hunt scenes and other genre paintings of anonymous horses long have been staples of equine art, portraiture of individual horses also forms a robust tradition. The prolific 18th century British painter George Stubbs defines its high water mark. Stubbs’s large and celebrated body of equine portraiture ranges from smaller portraits of individual horses and larger double portraits of horses and their owners or jockeys to such massive canvases as Whistlejacket (c. 1762), a life-size tour de force commissioned by the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham to memorialize his Arabian stallion of that name— a painting that literally dominates Room 34 of the National Gallery in London.

The tradition of equine portraiture has continued unbroken since the 18th century and ranges in our time, for example, from the charcoal portraits and illustrations of Thoroughbreds by the mid-20th century draftsman C. W. Anderson, to the monumental equine canvases by the contemporary artist Patricia Powers, to the thousands of portraits, executed by hundreds of known and unknown painters and photographers, of the horses that amateurs own and love.

Alfred de Dreux, L’Impératrice Eugénie (nd)
Alfred de Dreux, L’Impératrice Eugénie (nd)

Probably more numerous than portraits of horses, however, are equestrian portraits of eminent persons on horses. And since many such persons were identified with a specific mount, equestrian paintings frequently form a double portrait of human and horse. Equestrian portraits of men dominate the tradition, though the many important paintings of women equestrians by Alfred de Dreux in the 19th century, for example, provide an important counterpoint.

Equestrian portraits of generals and monarchs clearly dominate the field, ranging from Peter-Paul Rubens’s Philip II Crowned by Victory (1628) and Velázquez’s portraits of Philip IV of Spain (1635-36), to Franz Kruger’s portraits of Frederick Wilhelm III (1830-31) and Alexander I (1837), to Jan van Chelminski’s early 20th century portraits of commanders and horsemen of the Great War of 1914-1918, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Marshal Joseph Joffre, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, and General John J. Pershing.

George Washington is one of the makers of modern American and European history who are subjects of large numbers of contemporary and later equestrian portraits. Washington appears unmounted, with horses prominently featured in the foreground or background, in such contemporary works as Charles Wilson Peale’s GW at the Battle of Princeton (1781), John Trumbull’s Washington at Verplanck’s Point, NY, 1782 (1790), and Gilbert Stuart’s GW at Dorchester Heights (1806), to cite just a few examples.

Franz Kruger, Equestrian Portrait of Alexander I (1837)
Franz Kruger, Equestrian Portrait of Alexander I (1837)

Equestrian portraits of an unmounted Washington, however, do not begin to rival in number the portraits of Washington mounted, including Turnbull’s Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown (1787) and The Death of General Hugh Mercer at the Battle of Princeton (c. 1795); James Peale’s GW at the Battle of Princeton (1804) and Rembrandt Peale’s Equestrian Portrait of GW (c. 1835); and, at the turn of the last century, John Faed’s GW Taking the Salute at Trenton (c. 1900) and John Ward Dunsmore’s Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge (1907).

Washington’s equestrian portraits, like many of his non-equestrian portraits, emphasize physical stature and noble bearing as metaphors for military rank and authority and for a classical ideal of leadership in a new democracy squeamish about monarchy and revolutionary ideology alike.

Napoleon I doubtless wins the grand championship of modern equestrian portraiture, not only because he loomed larger in Western history than did Washington, but also because France had more and greater contemporary painters than did the United States.

Perhaps because of his diminutive stature, Napoleon seems rarely if ever to appear unmounted, standing close to a horse. Equestrian portraits of a mounted Napoleon, however, abound (many on his favorite mount Marengo).

These include portraits focused exclusively on rider and horse, such as Jacques-Louis David’s flamboyant, iconic, and multi-versioned Napoleon Crossing the Alps(1800), a subject reinterpreted by Paul Delaroche in 1848; and equestrian portraits by Carle Vernet (1805-10), Joseph Chabord (1810), Simon Meister (1826 and again in 1832), and Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1864).

Jean-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800)
Jean-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800)

Guillaume-Francois Colson’s vigorous N Enters Alexandria (1800) finds an interesting companion piece in Jean-Léon Gérome’s N and His General Staff (1867), in which the titular figures ride camels (though background figures ride horses).

A mounted Napoleon also appears as focal point in many battle paintings, including renditions of the battles of Arcole, Austerlitz, Borodino, Eylau, Friedland, Jena, and Wagram. The great 19th century battlefield painter Robert Alexander Hillingford executed numerous equestrian portraits of both Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington—including a large suite of Waterloo battle paintings—that suggest ecumenism in aesthetics if not exactly disinterest in military outcomes.

A contemporary British cartoon, finally, Napoleon’s Exile to Elba, depicts Napoleon mounted backwards on a donkey, brandishing a broken saber. Whatever its intent as lampoon, it cannot undermine the masterfully evocative and elegiac painting, Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow, executed by Adolf Northen in 1851.


 This article is excerpted from a book-in-progress: Riding Late: Essays on Horsemanship, Cavalry, and the Great War.

Charles Caramello

Charles Caramello is Professor of English at the University of Maryland and John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia.

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