“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”
- Richard III, Act 5, Scene 4
Richard is in dire circumstances when he speaks those words. Knocked off his horse during the Battle of Bosworth Field, his fate is soon sealed. A cry of desperation, Richard is suddenly vulnerable and at the mercy of his enemies, all because he is without his horse.
Before I continue I should share the reason for this horse-inspired post. Tonight my Mom’s Mother’s Day gift will finally take place. I’m taking her to see the Tony Award winning play “War Horse” at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. She’s excited, I’m excited, excitement all over the place
Man and horse have an intimate relationship that dates back for many millennia. In battle, in work, in history and literature, horses have provided faithful companionship and been there for us through thick and thin. Don Quixote’s fictional horse was the skinny, emaciated Rocinante, whose fidelity and temperament made up for his lack of beauty and athleticism. In real history, Alexander the Great had an extremely close bond with his horse Bucephalus, a true “war horse” of ancient times. Alexander fell into a profound state of grief over the horse’s passing and even named a city in his honor, Bucephala. The mad Emperor Caligula treated his white stallion Incitatus as if he were a human of equal legal and social stature. Caligula had the horse attended by a team of 18 personal servants, threw birthday parties for him, and allegedly planned to make him a member of the Roman senate. But of course Caligula, notoriously, was not of sound mind. And that’s putting it mildly.
Beautiful, strong, elegant animals, horses are loved by almost everyone, and Edgar Degas was no exception. It’s even more perfect that my Mom is crazy about horses AND Degas. So this post is pretty awesome for her.
In this lovely horse study we can see that Degas is working it out, trying to get the anatomy, forms, and appearance of the horse just right. Horses have a very distinct bearing and artists should focus on capturing the horse’s posture and comportment if they want to depict the animal well:
Horse and Rider:
Degas was not a horseman himself. So why would he be so attracted to the subject artistically? The answer is clear when we consider Degas’ consistent pattern in his subject choices. Think about it. He liked movement. Ballet dancers, stage performers, nudes in active situations like taking baths, combing hair, toweling off, etc. With a few exceptions, like portraits, the vast majority of Degas’ work is focused on the gestural. It was his wheelhouse, so to speak. So the horse, with its majestic gait, agility, and strong movements, was a natural fit for Degas’ repertoire.
I love this one from the Thaw Collection at The Morgan Library. Racehorse, charcoal on brown paper, 1878:
This painting, Horses in a Meadow from 1871, looks less like a “typical” Degas. Still a beautiful scene though:
The horse is also in the news a lot lately. The racehorse “I’ll Have Another” has already won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, which means he has a shot at the Triple Crown on June 9th at Belmont.
Degas’ pencil sketch Jockeys:
I found this excellent article Degas at the Races for anyone who is interested. A very informative, interesting read about Degas’ experiences and evolution in painting and drawing horses.
Have a great weekend everyone! See you soon.