So, You Think You Love Horses? Some Reflections on the Nature of Horses and Man

More Discussions by “The Accidental Horseman”

Artists and Horses: A Critique of Horse Depictions

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Ferdinando de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany 1549-1609
The horse was incidental and was to display its rider.
Ferdinando d'Medici,

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino) 1483-1520
Study of One of The Quirinal Marble Horses
Old masters studied proportions (see his measurements).
The huge Roman marble horses originally situated on Quirinal Hill in Rome were too large to loot.
Quirinal marbles

Bronze Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, 2nd Century A.D.
One of the oldest surviving bronze equestrian statues, it became the model for the equestrian statues of the Renaissance. It was common practice for invading armies to melt down bronze statues as loot, but this one survived thanks to the Catholic Church.
Marcus Aurelius

Charles le Brun 1616-1690
Chancellor Seguier Mounted 1660
The horse's head is well proportioned if somewhat stylized.

Peter Paul Rubens 1577–1640
Marie de’ Medici and her Triumph at Juliers from the Palais de Luxembourg, Paris, France
Rubens' horse is also well proportioned if somewhat stylized Baroque art work and Marie is as triumphant as her male contemporaries .
Sala dei Cavalli, Palazzo Te Mantua 16th Century Grey Stallion from the Sables of Ludovico Gonzaga III
In this case the horse is the subject and is correctly depicted by the artist.

Artists have portrayed horses for millennial. Horses appear as the subjects of cave paintings on the walls of the caves in Lascaux, France. These caves contain the best-known examples Upper Paleolithic art in the world. These paintings are estimated to be 17,300 years old. Over the centuries that followed horses paraded in images as the chariot horses or the mounts of all the great captains, and the various conquerors of history. I understand why artists depict horses and why humans enjoy looking at horse depictions. There is an esthetic quality to horses that no other potential subject matter possesses. They are beautiful, mystical, powerful, spirited, and graceful. However, I would be lying if I pretended that the animals were the subjects of many of these works of art. No, rather the subject was the human and the portrayal of the animal was more about what it said about the human. A powerful man has a powerful horse and a graceful lady has a graceful mount. The horse was no more important than the finery that the humans wore or other badges and emblems of their social status. Most artists did not really have the choice of their subject matter. They were working for others and hired to produce their art work. The artists only freedom of action lay in how they executed the particular work of art and thus displayed their virtuosity. The old masters were an elite group and their patrons where among the most wealthy and influential people in their times.

Aelbert Cuyp 1620-1691 Unknown Lady and Gentleman on Horseback The bay looks good but the gray's head is too small for its body. A three-quarter view is technically demanding.

Iroquois, 1st American-bred horse to win the Epsom Derby, 1881 Was there ever a Thoroughbred who was this thin?

James Seymour 1702-1752
Sir Roger Burgoyne Riding Badger, 1740
Poor Badger, I believe he must have been a much more handsome horse in life. His eyes are poorly executed, giving him a bug-eyed look and head almost looks like it belongs on a seahorse.
burgoyne and badger.jpeg
People in prior times are certainly around horses, saw them, rode them or drove them on a daily basis. So why are there all those horrible, and I mean truly horrible, 17th and 18th century paintings of horses? I do not really have an explanation and maybe there are art historians who are in a better position than me to answer the question. Most artists are trained to portray human beings. People will hold still and models are available to sit while artists are in training. Live horses are rather difficult to work with in a studio and during the 17th and 18th century those artists who executed animal portraits were not afforded the same prestige as human portrait artists. They tended get the proportions of the animals wrong and paint a disproportionately small head on the animal. Some of this may have been an effort to exaggerate that was considered a mark of refinement in the animal. They also often exaggerated or otherwise failed to capture a good depiction of the eye of the horse. I think the truth may be very simple. It is no accident that we call the old masters masters. Many of the artists doing 17th and 18th century English and American sporting paintings were, I am afraid to say, simply hacks. They did not have the technical competence needed to produce a truly good image of a horse. In prior times owning art work was beyond the ability of all but the most wealthy individuals and institutions in their societies. During the 17th and 18th centuries owning art became possible for those who were somewhat less wealthy, the lesser nobility and the bourgeoisie and in that sense more democratic. However, the artists who served them were often less skilled. However, many of the images show well depicted and perfectly proportioned humans, so a lack of artistic skill is the not the entire story.

Frederic Remington 1861-1909
A Cheyenne Brave Mounted 1901
Remington is always a favorite and very skilled in capturing natural looking horses in his many depictions of them.

George Stubbs 1724-1806
John and Sophia Musters Riding at Colwick Hall 1777
George Stubbs is a towering figure in 18th century equestrian art. He diligently studied equine anatomy and frequently captured the spirit and personalities of his animals in a way never done before and yet like so many others he too frequently put disproportionally small heads on his equine subjects. This painting has an interesting story. You may want to check it out.

It was not until the 19th century and particularly after the introduction of photograph that the average artist finally seemed to successfully portray correct proportions for their equine subjects. I have one final thing to say in the sprite of humility and that is that it is easy to be an art critic but very hard to be an artist.

Yours truly,
The Accidental Horseman and now art critic.

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