Horses have a long tradition in art, beginning with cave paintings. Martin Kemp says, “Only the Horse has been subject over the centuries to anything like the same kind of intensive physical investigation as we have applied to the human body.” Leonardo DaVinci and George Stubbs were more concerned with the anatomy of horses, while others emphasized their motion. Ernest Meissonier tried to accurately render their movements by putting a couch on wheels near railroad tracks. He would sit there and draw the animals as it moved beside him, but the faster paces were still hard to capture. There is a tradition of showing a flying gallop. It is a moment of suspension with all legs extended. This was proven wrong by the sequence photographer, Eadweard Muybridge, in the 1870s.
Degas has a huge portfolio of images dedicated to this subject of equestrian fascination. One source says he made 45 paintings, 20 pastels, 250 drawings, and 17 sculptures on the subject. Degas was interested in depicting horses for the many themes involved in the act. As a spectator sport, horse racing was a certain social spectacle and had a theater quality to it. He wanted to analyze perception and record a modern experience. He used an assortment of outdoor surroundings and social contexts for these horses. He liked to focus on the nervous tension just before the race or the calm idleness right after. He was fascinated by showing energy under control. He had no concern for the race in and of itself. A racetrack historian would not gain any information from referencing his art. He never recorded specific races or famous horses.
Other artists also explored this subject. Manet only produced seven prints of the racetrack. Unlike Degas, Manet was interested in the races themselves and he would depict the whole scene of racing participants and spectators. He would often fragment his paintings. Degas was influenced by Manet's epic painting, but it was Degas who influenced Manet into painting equestrian subjects in the first place. Toulouse-Lautrec was obsessed with horses, even more than Degas, but most of his work involving horses centered on circus horses. However, the sheer volume of equestrian subjects that Degas produced made his name more associated with racecourse imagery and other horse subject matter than any other artist.
Degas would influence the art community for equestrian art for years to come. Franz Marc was a German Expressionist who co-founded the Blue Rider group. The group was named Blue Rider after Kandinsky and Marc's shared interest in painting horses. Marc dedicated his art career to painting animals, especially horses. This is because Franz Marc believed that horses were the most spiritual animals. Horses evolved into symbolizing an untamed spirit to many. His goal was to convey his own naiveness and spirituality through painting these animals. Also, he often attempted to observe and depict nature from the animal's point of view and assert human qualities into animal paintings, which he called “animalisation of art”. This was accomplished through primitivism, which was “the desire to reunite with nature while escaping 'the terror of historical dislocation, social alienation, and philosophical doubt.” It also incorporates the idea of unspoiled beauty and childlike simplicity. Another characteristic of his work of animals is that they often seem rhythmic. Franz Marc's influence can still be felt today. He is said to be a precursor of Disney's “Fantasia.”
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Harris, Jean C. “Manet's Racetrack Paintings.” Art Bulletin. 48(1966) 78-82
Johnson, Ron. “The Franz Marc Centenary.” Arts Magazine. 54(1980): 80-82
Kemp, Martin. “Parading the Horse.” The Art Quarterly. 30(1997): 24-31.
Kendall, Richard. Degas Landscapes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Rosenthal, Mark. Franz Marc. Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1989.
Rosenthal, M. “Franz Marc's Animalisation of Art.” The Connoisseur. 203(1980): 24-29.
Rousuck, E.J. “Degas's Racing World.” The Thoroughbred Record. (1968) 1003-1012.
Wildenstein and Company. Degas' Racing World. New York City:Wildenstein and Company, 1968.
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