Notice: Undefined index: wp_db_temp_dir in /data/www/ on line 112 Warning: session_start() expects parameter 1 to be array, string given in /data/www/ on line 286 The Horse in Art - The Role of the Horse in Art and History

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Man riding a mule in front of a cotton field by William Aiken Walker, c. 1885

oil on board, 20.3 x 30.5 cm, signed lower left, auction Christie’s, New York, 15-05-2019

This painting is characteristic for the work on the cotton fields in the Southern states of the USA. All work was done by the black population and mainly mules were used for transport of the cotton crop and people. William Walker made many scenes related to the work on the cotton fields, all of them with black people and many with mules. Cotton pickers, wagons loaded with cotton bales, cabins with families, all these topics give us a good idea of the important cotton industry of that time. The man in this painting may be a supervisor on a plantation. Striking are the reins which consist of skeins of cotton, and even the stirrups have been fixed with skeins of cotton to the pommel of the saddle, which is a most peculiar construction. The reins have some unusual extra loops, probably meant to tether the horse to a fence. The entire equipment is very simple but the rider is completely at ease on his animal. The history of the black Americans on horseback is now the topic of a travelling exhibition ‘Brief History of Black Horsemen in Racing’ in the USA, on loan from James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia.

Elisabeth van Aldenburg Bentinck riding Uranus by Johan Kuypers, c. 1928

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Watercolor, 140,5 x 114,5 cm, signed lower left, Amerongen, Kasteel Amerongen

Here we do not see a beautiful horse with its rider, but a really good combination of the two. Elisabeth van Aldenburg Bentinck (1892-1971) lived at the family castle and estate in Amerongen where many domestic animals were kept, nature was conserved and agriculture practiced, already for many generations. The chestnut horse she rides is Uranus, which was given to her by the former German empress Auguste Victoria, wife of Wilhelm II. When the emperor and empress left Germany after the defeat of the German army in 1918, they lived for almost two years in the Amerongen castle as guests of the Bentinck family, before they moved to Huis Doorn. In 1919 she had given Uranus (1905-1935) to Elisabeth as a token of appreciation and the new combination turned out to be a very happy one. Elisabeth rode Uranus every day and the painter was also commissioned to made a portrait of the horse without rider. The horse has its tombstone in the garden of Kasteel Amerongen. In the second world war, when horses were requisitioned by the German occupier, Elisabeth managed to hide two riding horses in the basement of the castle. Although she was married to Sigurd von Ilsemann, adjutant of the former emperor, she remained loyal to the Netherlands. In Amerongen Elisabeth established an animal shelter, checked animal welfare on farms and undertook educational activities for children. (Lit.: J.C. Bierens de Haan, D. Splinter, L. Gerretsen, Deftige dieren, Amerongen 2019)

Fuente de los Caballos by J. Pernas, 1825

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Stone and marble, c. 800 cm high, Plaza de Platerias (photograph Kirsten Bras-Ykema)

The four seahorses are being raised in the water. High above them a woman figure (one of the Muses ?) holding the star of Santiago de Compostela, dominates the composition. New students of the university use to come here with their patron to be initiated by immersing their head in the water. The function of this fountain is clearly derived from the mythological spring Hippocrene on the Greek mountain Helicon, activated by the hooves of the winged horse Pegasus. Pegasus was raised by the Muses on this mountain. Those who drank the spring water were inspired by the creative genius of the Muses. So it happened to Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) who was inspired on this spot to write his poem ‘Danza de lúa en Santiago’ (Dance of the Santiago moon) in the Galician language. Moreover the horse plays an important role in his work, for example in ‘Canción de Jinete’, ‘Romancero Gitano’ and in his play ‘La Casa de Bernarda Alba’.

Saint Martin in the Church of Oradour by Jean Burkhalter, 1953

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Wall painting, c. 400 x 250 cm, facade above the entrance, signed and dated (photograph Kirsten Bras-Ykema)

Jean Burkhalter began his career at the famous ‘Exposition internationale des Arts décoratifs et industriels modernes’ in 1925 in Paris. His image of Saint Martin is the dominating decoration of the church in the new village of Oradour-sur-Glane (Haute Vienne) in France, which is a national monument. The new village was built next to the ruins of the original village, destroyed in 1944 with its inhabitants by a SS division. Saint Martin, as a Roman soldier, is the icon of Christian help to the needy ones and can be seen here as the ultimate counterpart of the ruthless occupier in 1944. This huge representation of Saint Martin is an enduring symbol of charity next to the world’s cruelty.

The White Horse on the Beach by Joaquín Sorolla Bastida, 1909

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oil painting on canvas, 205 x 250 cm, Madrid, Museo Sorolla, inv. 00839

Sorolla painted many scenes on the beach of El Cabañal in Valencia. People swimming or lying in the sun, always in bright colors indicating the summer atmosphere and the relaxation of the people. The painting shown here has the same qualities, but rendered in the combination of a boy with his horse. The boy leads the horse out of the water and apparently they both enjoyed their bath, since their attitude is completely relaxed. We see an unusual example of the partnership between man and horse, emphasized by the high point of view in this painting.

Bernard van Leer’s Circus Kavaljos by Willy Sluiter, 1936

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Watercolor on paper, 119 x 175 mm, Auction House Onder de Boompjes, Leiden, 12 June 2011, lot no. 1

Willy Sluiter attended the gala performance of Circus Kavaljos on 13 June 1936 in the garden of ‘De Stille Hoek’ (The Quiet Corner), a residence in Wassenaar. He annotated this watercolor with all details of the event, which apparently was memorable. The residence in Wassenaar was not the residence of Bernard van Leer, who lived in Hilversum and was a wealthy manufacturer of barrels. In the 1920s Bernard van Leer developed a passion for horse riding and training of horses for circus performances. In 1935 he established his own Circus Kavaljos. The proceeds went to charities. He had Frisian, Arabian and Lipizzaner horses. In 1941 he managed to ship his whole circus via Cuba to the USA, where he spent the war years with his circus. In 1945 he came back to the Netherlands with his circus. The grey horse we see here is a Lipizzaner trained for dressage on the long rein without rider. It performs the Spanish walk with the legs lifted high and stretched. The lady/trainer is dressed in a side-saddle skirt, jacket, boots and spurs, so she will also ride a horse. Unfortunately she is not identified in the annotation. The public wears evening dress. The artist clearly expressed his enthousiasm in this little colorful work.

Stable, by Franz Marc, 1913

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‘Stallungen’, oil painting on cloth, 73,6 x 57,5 cm, monogrammed, 1913, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. 

The artist must have been fascinated by the row of heavy horses in a stable. They are tied up in stalls and separated from each other by partitions. In order to see who is entering the stable the horses have to turn their head, which is happening in this painting. On the left the row of stalls with horses makes a turn so that we see the right sides of these horses. With the tails, the hindquarters, the heads and the partitions, the artist created an effect of lines and shapes leading to a new reality. This and other paintings show how Franz Marc used horses, deer and other animals to express his view on the world: a view ultimately leading to abstraction.

French artillery horses embarking on a train by Henri Baud, c. 1919

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pastel and charcoal heightened with white on paper, 25 x 33,5 cm, signed, private collection

Henri Baud was a French artist serving as an artillery officer in the First World War. In 1915 he was on the Western Front, as an interpreter for colonel Claude Charlton of the 37th British Royal Artillery Division (information from Roderick MacLeod). The scene here shows French artillery horses on their way to the front. Most striking is the peace and relaxation of the horses during loading. They walk calmly onto the cart serving as loading bridge to the train carriage. Other horses are waiting for their turn. The soldiers must have ridden the horses at high speed to the railway station, because we see steaming bodies. The artist accurately rendered the complicated harness of the artillery horses, which pull the guns while ridden by soldiers. This historical scene has much documentary value.

Lost in the snow storm – We are friends

by Charles Russell, 1888

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cloth, 60,9 x 109,5 cm, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth TX, inv. no. 1961.144.

A group of five American Indians on horseback is lost in a snow storm. They happen to meet two cowboys with their pack horse and exchange information in sign language, making clear they do not want to be enemies. In our time we can hardly imagine the situation of horsemen riding in a snow storm hoping to find some game to hunt and then getting lost. The picture also shows how the riders could trust their horses even in the harsh weather. The American Indians liked spotted horses, like the one in front, and this color pattern is still popular among American horse people.

Orpheus Playing for the Wild Animals

by H. le Foy, 1636

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Print, approx. 19 x 11 cm, signed lower right, frontispiece in: F. Marin Mersenne, ‘Harmonie universelle, contenant la théorie et la pratique de la musique’, Paris 1636. Gemeentemuseum Den Haag.

In the Greek mythology Orpheus had the talent to bring anybody to civilized morals through his enchanting singing and playing the lyre. His talent also extended to the wild animals, as shown in this picture. The scene is used here to symbolize ‘Harmonie Universelle’, the subject of a book on the theory and practice of music. The last lines from Psalm 150 were added, in which all creatures are exhorted to praise the Lord with harp and lyre. We see the lion, buck, dog, camel, dog, monkey, cat, mouse, rabbit, deer, turtle, and the horse. The position of the horse is striking. It oversees the group and shows its strong attention to the music by the high position of its head and upright neck. In the mythological story Orpheus is playing for wild animals, but this horse with its braided mane can hardly be considered as wild. Here the horse may be seen as the animal built for freedom and speed, that nevertheless is always serving man with its wonderful ability to adapt. Even in its serfdom, the horse never gives up its joy of freedom. That quality makes the horse so fascinating for artists.