Art of the horse revealed in stunning sculptures on auction block

Edgar Degas Cheval au galop sur le pied droit is 31.8cm tall and 46.4cm long.
Edgar Degas Cheval au galop sur le pied droit is 31.8cm tall and 46.4cm long.

Two of the equestrian works by French artist Edgar Degas are coming up for sale at two sales by auction house Christie’s, with his largest surviving sculpture expected to fetch more than a million dollars. But even that is likely to be upstaged by Marino Marini’s Cavaliere.

Cavaliere, which along with Degas’s Cheval au galop sur le pied droit, will be sold at Christie’s New York Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on November 16.

Marino Marini's Cavaliere
Marino Marini’s Cavaliere

Cavaliere has a pre-auction estimate of between $US4 million and $6 million. When he created 2m tall piece in 1951, Marini said: “There is the whole story of humanity and nature in the figure of the horseman and his horse”.

The horse and rider became Marini’s chief theme, a singular achievement for which he will forever be best known and admired.

He drew and modeled horses nearly every day early in his career, when he rented a studio in Monza near Milan, where his neighbors owned a big livery stable.

“In the past fifty years, the ancient relationship between man and beast of burden has been entirely transformed,” Marini said. “The horse has been replaced, in its economic and its military functions, by the machine, the tractor, the automobile or the tank. It has become a symbol of sport or luxury, and in the minds of most of our contemporaries, is rapidly becoming a kind of myth.

“The horseman and horse, in my latest works, have become strange fossils, symbols of a vanished world, or rather a world which, I feel, is destined to vanish forever,” Marini said.

Marino Marini's Cavaliere
Marino Marini’s Cavaliere.

The work Cheval au galop sur le pied droit is the largest surviving Degas horse sculpture. It is described as a powerful and dynamic statuette of a horse galloping, and has a pre-auction estimate of between $US1 million and $1.5 million.

Degas was inspired greatly by the work of Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering stop-action photographs of horses in motion, from 1887.

In Cheval au galop, Degas has captured the horse’s position at an instant of powerful forward thrust, immediately before the legs are fully extended. The hind legs have already made their initial two-beat footfall; the left foreleg now stretches to take ground, and the flexed right foreleg begins to straighten to succeed it. A frame from Muybridge’s photographic sequence of the racehorse Bouquet galloping shows the animal in almost the identical position, with the same vigorously outstretched neck, raised tail, and forward-turned ears.

“Happy sculptor… but I have not yet made enough horses!” So Degas wrote, exhilarated, to his friend and fellow sculptor Albert Bartholomé in 1888, after having created the piece.

Muybridge’s images revolutionized the understanding of animal movement, demonstrating, for example, that a galloping horse’s four feet are all off the ground not when the legs are extended but rather when they are tucked beneath the animal.

“Even though I had the opportunity to mount a horse quite often,” Degas later said, “even though I could distinguish a thoroughbred from a half-bred without too much difficulty, even though I had a fairly good understanding of the animal’s anatomy, I was completely ignorant of the mechanism of its movements [before Muybridge]”

Like all Degas’s work in three dimensions, Cheval au galop was originally modeled in wax and cast by Hébrard in a limited bronze edition only after the artist’s death, at the request of his heirs. It proved one of the most successful of the bronzes, with casts sold almost annually during the first half of the 1920s.

In 2012, another of Degas’s Cheval au galop sold for £2.6 million at Christie’s in London.

The piece will be sold at Christie’s New York Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on November 16.

Cheval galopant
Cheval galopant

The charcoal drawing by Degas titled Cheval galopant is expected to fetch between $US40,000 and $60,000 when it comes up at the Impressionist & Modern Art Works on Paper Sale at Christie’s in New York on November 17.

Drawn between 1885 and 1890, it is closely related to one of the same subject in the Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo. In reference to the latter work, Jean Sutherland Boggs wrote: “The more nearly sentimental side of Degas … comes out in charcoal drawings of young horses out for pasture in a state of perfect freedom, undoubtedly fenced but unfettered by harness, saddle or rider.

“One colt, with a gentle expression conveyed by its large black eyes, can only be described as of the charcoal is very close to the contours in a drawing made for the sculpture of the fourteen-year-old dancer nude” (Degas at the Races, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 140).

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