The horse has been a subject in art since the cave paintings of prehistoric man and has remained so until the present day, largely owing to the royal connection with horses and the preoccupation with equine sport, particularly racing. Over the years, the role of the horse in the picture, the style, technique and function of the picture have altered dramatically. These changes can be traced in the work of three artists: George Stubbs, John Frederick Herring Snr. and Sir Alfred Munnings who were the few English horse painters to receive professional recognition.
The horse in art can be traced from ancient cave paintings found in south-west Europe which were made over ten thousand years ago. These paintings were a combination of artistic expression and ritualistic magic to conjure up the hunted animal. In these times the horse was the quarry; not the method of pursuit. Stylised horses were also portrayed in ancient Egyptian tombs, in the early states of Rome and in relief in Assyria. They are also found in the frieze from the Parthenon (Elgin Marbles). Leonardo da Vinci made many drawings of horses. He was haunted by the image of the horse and fascinated by their formal beauty in repose and their wild superhuman energy in motion.
In the Elgin Marbles the horse and rider are of equal importance but, in British art the horse traditionally took a secondary role. The horse was a convenient podium to make small men, particularly kings, look important and to provide animation to a flat landscape. However, the horse became important in its own right as a sporting status symbol and, in the times of Stubbs and Herring, the horse was the main focus of the picture and portraits of horses were especially commissioned.
Capturing the Movement of the Horse
The conformation and action of horses posed a problem to artists. They wanted to show the horse moving but (until the late nineteenth century) no painter of horses had mastered the true action of the gallop. Van Dyck, Velasquez and Leonardo da Vinci (in the Sforza monument) portray horses rearing. This was probably copied from the ‘levade’ movement in ‘haute ecole’ which was popular at that time. Sartorius and Alken portrayed horses in the ‘rocking horse’ gallop with all four feet off the ground. In the mid nineteenth century this developed into the ‘ventre a terre’ gallop also with all four feet off the ground which Herring popularised. Meissonier, a French artist, constructed a miniature railway so he could ride and draw alongside a galloping horse and capture all its movements accurately, but this enterprising venture proved unsuccessful.
The invention of the camera was the next progression of the horse in art. Eadweard Muybridge used a number of cameras to analyse the paces of the horse. The camera shutters were opened by a trip-wire activated by the passing horse. The diagrams drawn from these photographs showed the absurdity of both the rocking horse and ventre a terre gallops. (If you are interested in reading in depth information about Eadweard Muybridge you could read the informative Muy Blog.) However, pictures painted from the frozen action of photographs still looked very unnatural and the demand for paintings of horses declined in the late nineteenth century until Alfred Munnings started his career.
The horse in art has evolved from the prehistoric cave paintings where the horse was hunted for food to paintings today which commemorate the life of racehorses, such as Desert Orchid, which are worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. Through the years the horse has been used by humans – to eat, to work, to carry them to war and to amuse the affluent.
As long as the horse continues to be both exploited and revered by humans the ‘noblest animal of spirit, magnificence and grace’ will be reflected in art.