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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’.

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.