Horsing Around

“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.

12 thoughts on “Horsing Around

  1. Elaine says:

    Claudia, what a wonderful post. You are right about my excitement about tonight and “Warhorse”. I read the article Degas at the Races. As much as I have a myriad of Degas art books, I had not seen a reference to how Degas became interested in studying and painting horses. It was fascinating to learn about his evolution of this genre. Thanks for enlightening me on this subject. After reading this article, I can appreciate Degas’ magnificent pastel paintings of horses even more. Degas and Horses a match made in heaven for a true art lover.

    • artmodel says:

      Mom,

      I knew this post would make you happy 🙂

      It was wonderful seeing WarHorse together. A perfect mother/daughter night. Love you so much.

      Claudia

  2. violinhunter says:

    I am so glad you didn’t include any of the “a horse walks into a bar” jokes in this post. HOWEVER, you might consider doing a post on dog and maybe even horse and maybe even viola jokes in the (near) future.

  3. I’ve never seen that Degas landscape with the 2 horses. atypical. he doesn’t usually deal with the outdoors ( not counting those racetrack scenes) – he’s an “interior” artist for the main part. but i love how he captured that landscape and the riverbank and the houses. the colors are muted but they look more “real” than the contemporaneous barage of Impressionist landscapes a la’ Monet et al

    • artmodel says:

      pigmentpondering,

      I agree. The colors in that painting are muted and beautiful. And I love the affectionate “pose” of the two horses.

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

  4. Derek says:

    Degas is also my favorite artist myself. I believe your mum talked about him on earlier posts she has some good taste in artist.Here is a link to his
    paintings and history of him just to share with the rest of this blog I hope you don’t mind.
    http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dgsp/hd_dgsp.htm
    BTW a happy mother’s day to your mother Elaine and she has a fine daughter who is beautiful and smart. Peta sends her regards to both of you.

    Regards from Sydney. Australia

  5. Very good post. Degas’s interest in horse is very intriguing indeed. As you rightly say, he was not a particularly keen rider, unlike many great equestrian art masters such as Géricault, who had a passion for horses. You say Degas was probably attracted by horses because of movement, and this is probably right. Although, there are very few, if any, horse paintings or drawings by him showing horses in strong action. Most are shown at standstill or at walk. He seems to have concentrated his study on movement to his bronze sculptures, which deserve attention because of their spontaneity and sketch-like appearance which reveal their research oriented intent.
    It worth noting that Degas’ interest in horses was far from being superficial, as proven by his knowledge of equine anatomy which is perfect.
    I would suggest that there are at lot of commonality between classic dance and horsemanship: rhythm, cadence, grace, ‘noblesse’, in a word beauty, and that maybe Degas has been particularly receptive to this artistic correspondence, and has expressed it superbly.
    Should you be interested, you are welcome to visit my blog which precisely deals with art and equitation.i hope you will find some of the interest I had when going through your own blog.
    Will, an old horseman and art lover.

    • artmodel says:

      Will,

      I enjoyed your comments very much, thank you! This post from 2012 is a personal favorite of mine. I’m glad you found it and revived the comments! You made the point about Degas being attracted to the rhythmic “dance” qualities of horses, which makes a great deal of sense when we consider the extensive number of works he did of ballet dancers, rehearsals, and dance classes.

      Equine anatomy is a fascinating subject. I think the reason people love horses so much is not just because they’re beautiful, but their athleticism and strength never ceases to amaze.

      Your blog is marvelous! I will be visiting in the future. And again, thank you for your thoughtful, informative comments. Much appreciated!

      Claudia

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