On the topic of Chinese New Year…

Since writing my piece on Chinese New Year I can’t seem to get away from horses – images, statues, and actual ones. If they are not trotting past me carrying policemen, then they are rearing away on book covers, being tamed by Katy Perry at the Grammys, or dramatically drawing a quadriga on top of Wellington Arch in Hyde Park Corner – I like to think this is some sign of good luck for the coming year rather than just coincidence. So in the spirit of Chinese New Year, I have drawn together some horse related art as tribute.

1. The Lascaux Horses, Dordogne, France. Approximately 17,300 years old, the Palaeolithic wall paintings in the Lascaux caves primarily depict human figures, animals, and abstract signs. Of the 900 or so animal images, about 364 of them are of horses – such as this one of a Dun horse.

2. Albrecht Durer’s ‘Knight, Death, and the Devil’, 1513. This copper engraving depicts an armoured knight on horseback with his loyal dog. They ride through a gorge and are watched on by a pig-snouted devil and the figure of death, who also sits on top of a horse.  Death holds up an hourglass, reminding the knight of the transience of life, however he appears unfazed and carries on forward, courageous and upright. This engraving is taken from Psalm 23: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

3. El Greco’s ‘Saint Martin and the Beggar‘, 1597-99, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. This altarpiece was originally painted for the Chapel of Saint Joseph in Toledo, Spain. It depicts the patron’s name saint, Martin of Tours, a soldier in Roman France, cutting his cloak in half to share with a cold beggar. Christ is believed to have appeared in Martin’s dream that night, saying, “What thou hast done for that poor man, thou hast done for me.”

4. Caravaggio’s ‘Conversion of Saint Paul, 1601, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. This famous painting hangs in the Cerasi chapel alongside Caravaggio’s ‘Crucifixion of Saint Peter‘ and Annibale Carracci’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin‘. This version is Caravaggio’s second attempt at painting the subject as the first one was rejected by the patron – the earlier work is now in the Odescalchi-Balbi collection in Rome. It recounts the moment when the soldier, Saul, falls on the road to Damascas, after having a vision from God. It is only after this conversion that he became Paul. I am a bit of a Caravaggio fan and this is definitely one of my favourites!

5. George Stubbs’s ‘Whistlejacket‘, c.1762, National Gallery, London. This masterpiece is one the National Gallery’s key works, and so was obviously going to be included in my list of horse related paintings. As Stubbs closely studied anatomy, his images of horses were extremely accurate. This painting was commissioned by Whistlejacket’s owner, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, also an important patron of Stubbs.

6. Jacques-Louis David’s ‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps‘, c.1800. Now, I am a massive David fan, and this particular painting brings back memories of my A-Level History of Art class pining over the heroic and powerful figure of Napoleon on a “fiery steed” (I went to an all-girls boarding school, where we had little contact with boys). Of course in reality Napoleon was never this tall or attractive, and the event David is supposed to be recording (Napoleon and his army crossing the Alps through the Great Saint Bernard pass in May 1800) has been strongly idealised – he actually crossed the pass on a mule. There are five versions of this painting – scattered between Versailles, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna – all with some discrepancies. My personal favourite is the second version in Versailles, where he wears a dramatic red cloak.

7. Eadweard Muybridge’s ‘The Horse in Motion‘, 1878, Library of Congress, Washington D.C. This groundbreaking three-second long “film” was made up of a series of photographs shot in rapid procession. Muybridge used a dozen cameras, whose shutters were triggered by the movement of the horse over trip wires. This experiment was commissioned by Leland Stanford, an industrialist and horse breeder, who wanted to know whether a galloping horse lifted all four legs at once when in motion – this proved that they do.

8. Pablo Picasso’s ‘Boy Leading a Horse‘, 1905-6, MOMA, New York. Another obvious horse painting by Picasso would probably be his ‘Guernica‘, but I really dislike it and much prefer his earlier works – sorry, not a big Cubist fan. This particular work was produced during Picasso’s ‘Rose Period’ in Paris (1904-6), a time when he frequently depicted harlequins and circus performers. It has actually been suggested that Picasso drew influence from El Greco’s ‘Saint Martin and the Beggar‘ when painting ‘Boy Leading a Horse‘.

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