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The Landing of Spring, by Bernard Essers, 1920

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Wood engraving, 59 x 40.5 cm, monogrammed lower right, Auction Onder de Boompjes, Leiden, lot 407, 20 June 2020

‘Spring’ is a girl on horseback and has landed with boats on the beach. She brings a cavalcade with her and is waving her arms. Her hair waves with them, as a continuation of the waves of the sea. The girl may be seen as ecstatic with joy while her horse carries her imperturbably. Two riders go in front of Spring and one of them picked a flower. The cavalcade is welcomed by a young boy playing the flute, a girl with geese and a woman carrying a basket with fruits on her head. The tree and large flowers play an important role in the scene. The artist has expressed the exuberant feeling caused by the spring through the many horses as carriers of Spring’s message. This work is considered as a key work in the symbolistic oeuvre of Bernard Essers and it was very much appreciated during his lifetime. Already in 1923 the New York Public Library purchased a copy and many collections followed. Spring’s Landing is an excellent example of the importance of the horse as a means to convey strong emotion and significance. (Lit. P. Spijk & A. Timmer, Bernard Essers 1893-1945, Zwolle 2008).

Lady Anne Blunt’s tent in the Arab desert, by Lady Anne Blunt, 1878

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Watercolour in Lady Anne Blunt’s diary, not signed, 23.8 x 15.6 cm, London, The Wentworth Bequest, British Library

Here we see an example of Anne Blunt’s (Lord Byron’s granddaughter) many talents. This lady was a gifted watercolour artist, played the violin (a Stradivarius), learned the Arabic language and translated pre-islamic Arabian poetry. Together with her husband Wilfrid Blunt and a few Arab guides and camel drivers, she made extensive travels through the Arabian deserts. Riding Arab horses she took the many hardships from traveling in inhospitable areas for granted and collected valuable information about the the Arab horse with the Bedouin tribes and families. In this way she also experienced the lifestyle and culture of the Bedouins. Her purpose was to find and purchase mares and stallions which she selected for her Crabbet Park stud in England. Until the 1960s this stud farm was the leading breeding stable of the pure Arab horse in Europe. Lady Anne Blunt’s diaries were donated to the British Library as the Wentworth Bequest, by her daughter Lady Judith Wentworth.

Face Masks in the Middle Ages

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Illustration by Robinet Testard in Le livre des clères et nobles femmes by Giovanni Boccaccio, 1496. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale. MS Fr. 599, f.67r (anonymous translation from the Latin original, c. 1362).

In the present time there is much discussion about the necessity of face masks and photos of people wearing them regularly appear in the newspapers. In the Middle Ages face masks were already highly developed as we can see in this illustration of a martial woman with her mask up and another person, probably her husband, with the mask down, both on horseback. Although the purpose of this mask was very different from the modern anti-virus mask, the technique and the material for optimal protection and comfort was already there. Moreover the whole outfit of both riders was also used for decoration and identification.  History repeats itself, but always differently.

Whistlejacket and Scrub, two contrasting horse portraits by George Stubbs

Left: Whistlejacket, 1762, canvas, 292×246 cm, National Gallery, London

Right: Scrub, c. 1762, canvas 268×244 cm, The Earl of Halifax

Both paintings were commissions by the Marquess of Rockingham to George Stubbs. Scrub was successful in the races and at stud, while Whistlejacket was much less successful, but yet Whistlejacket became famous and Scrub did not. The reason lies in the difference between their portraits. The Marquess had in mind to have an equestrian portrait of the new King George III, but he dropped this idea when he saw the portrait of Whistlejacket with its appealing appearance and colour, without rider and without background. In this painting Whistlejacket does not at all seem meant to be ridden, because it moves freely as a stallion at liberty and shows a natural beauty, which is conform to our sense of elegance and aesthetics. Whistlejacket was chosen because it was a very fine example of the Arabian influence in the English thoroughbred, a breed that was being developed in that time. Whistlejacket’s huge portrait is on view in the Mauritshuis, The Hague, in the first Stubbs exhibition in the Netherlands, until June 1, 2020.

The portrait of Scrub is fascinating for very different reasons. This horse has an appearance that does seem meant to be ridden. It moves like a well-trained mount with its head in a position as if it was controlled by the reins in the hands of the rider. The behaviour of Scrub almost invites a rider to enjoy its movements and its sensitivity to his or her aids. This huge painting also proves Stubbs’s mastery in rendering the fine details of the horse’s body, but Scrub does not have the glamour that Whistlejacket has. Unfortunately the Marquess did not purchase it and Stubbs always kept it in his workshop, except for an unsuccessful trip to India in 1785. The painting returned damaged and Stubbs restored it. In 2007 it was restored again, while still in a private collection.

Packhorse on Iceland, 1966

by Sigurjón Ólafsson

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bronze, 330 cm high, Raudararstigur/Laugasvegur, Reykjavik (photo: Kirsten Bras-Ykema)

This sculpture shows the horse as an essential part of the development of Iceland. The horse was imported into Iceland by Norwegian settlers in the 10th century or even earlier. Since then it was the main means of transport in the very rough terrain, especially between the villages and the trading ports and it became adapted to the harsh circumstances. Only in the 20th century the motorization took over that task. In the absence of large trees on Iceland, wooden building material had to be imported for building houses. That is what we see here. On its left side the mare carries some long planks and on the right a chest with bundles on top. She has her foal with her, not unusual for a working horse with a suckling foal that can walk well. The foal was added to the sculpture in 1984 and is an important part of this historical scene. (Foundry: Lauritz Rasmussen, Copenhagen).

Picking Up the Anchor Line by Willy Sluiter, c. 1898

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oil on canvas, 80 x 90 cm, c. 1898, signed lower right, Katwijk, Katwijks Museum, inv. no. 2104 (‘De Klijnhaalder’)

In the fishing village of Katwijk on the North Sea the fishing boats were moored with anchor on the beach. This painting shows how a rider first rode through the water to the boat, picked up the anchor line, taking the skipper with him on the back of his horse to the beach. Here we see something very special. The skipper is sitting on his knees behind the rider and has to hold on tight to him. This position on horseback is of course only suitable for a very short distance, and unique to see in a painting. The other crew members had to wade through the water. We also see a great example here of human-equine relationship in the necessary work.

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’.