Vintage view: horses in art

Kya deLongchamps nags us to take a closer look at the place of horses in art yesterday and today.

SOME 17,000 years ago when ancient peoples of Niaux, Lascaux, Vallon-ont-D’arc, used precious materials to paint on cave walls, they took the time to represent the horse — 364 of the 900 images were of equine animals. There’s no indication the horses were being ridden, but already they had earned not only respect as formidable prey animals, but had seized a place deep in the human imagination.

Horses as mounts provided an elevating, protective vehicle, making us faster, and as battle beasts- more dangerous to know too. Owning a horse, it’s difficult not to become emotionally involved, and for sentimental reasons as much as the financial crowing, the gentry, aristocracy, even the burgeoning middle class wanted images to survive after their horses foundered to age.

Breeding became a vital issue following the making of the thoroughbred horse from three foundation Arabian stallions imported to England from the Middle East. In Britain this led to the foundation of the General Stud Book in 1791, and the importance of line gave the horse the genealogy and recording of horses in art added interest.

These works of the 1700s are anatomically weird, showing enormous, steroid muscled horses, with cramped, bird like heads, and improbable rampant limbs relaxing in the gentle half light of a Georgian stable or posing around under trees as young stock.

The limbs are often so dainty they couldn’t possibly have supported the weight of a well upholstered rider lumping down the chase. Upper class riding horses were shown as almost mythical beings set in gorgeous topographical landscapes. Assets, and in many cases beloved pets they provided the fascination of breeding, carried their owners out hunting and provided seasonal fun filled days out steeple-chasing.

Despite their oddities, these luxuriant cartoonish illustrations of the 18th century proved so popular, that schools of art devoted solely to the horse sprung up across the western world. With long limbs and a naturally noble line, horses became a popular subject for buyers of antique and vintage drawings, paintings, prints and sculpture. In Victorian times, a herd of glossy steeds scattered over the walls, cooked up some supposed lineage for the householder too.

For correctness and visual beauty, there’s no one to touch George Stubbs (1724-1806), and he certainly earned his title as ‘the horse painter’ amongst his adoring followers. Like Leonardo da Vinci had done for the study of human anatomy in the 14th century, Stubbs had a number or horse carcasses carted to a barn where hung from a beam, he peeled back every layer of muscle and sinew.

This grisly exercise gave him a unique understanding of what was revealed beneath the skin in a living, moving horse. His book on the subject, published in 1766, is still referenced by artists today.

Until Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) arrived with monumental paintings acknowledging the place of the horse as a loyal war-machine in WWI and an explosive athlete on the race course, Stubbs simply had no peer in the British Isles. He could even dare to show the horse without any background and draw a crowd.

The stop-motion work of English photographer Eadweard Muybridges (1830-1904) in America in the 1870s using lines of plate cameras trigged by thread caused a sensation for horse lovers and artists.

The rolling images showed that the horse, far from flying like a barrage balloon, took a far more complex sequence of steps in beating out a trot, canter and a gallop. Edgar Degas was one of many artists who eagerly sought out photographic work in representing the horse Given their decline as working animals common to every smallholding and roomy suburb, horses became something of a boutique subject.

However, in period works, the literal representation of horses as classical, pastoral sporting or sheerly decorative creatures still draws an audience. With long limbs and a naturally noble line, horses remain a popular subject for buyers of antique and vintage drawings, paintings, prints and sculpture.

Investing in great equine art from today, there is a number of Irish artists that lead the field. In racing art, (popular since the Tudors), Peter Curling is famed for his sporting and hunting works thrilling with life, and John Fitzgerald (Artist-in-Residence at the Curragh) is informed, accomplished and prolific with works regularly coming up for sale.

For portrait work with tremulous muscular power that deftly catches the spiritual depth perceptible to all true horse people, Kerry-born artist Tony O’Connor, takes his lead directly from the Renaissance, and the Silverpoint drawings of DaVinci.

A graduate of the Crawford College of Art now garnering worldwide attention for paintings that celebrate the physicality of the horse in intimate, breathtaking detail, Tony works from his Whitetree Studio in Cork.

Given the waiting list for his work and sell-out displays at the Discover Ireland Horse Show at the RDS, he really is one to watch. He can be next seen in exhibition next spring in a show entitled All the Pretty Horses at the Doorway Gallery, Dublin. www.whitetreestudio.ie 


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