The Culture of Equine Art

by Aileen Mitchell 10. August 2016 12:29

We have records of our relationship with horses ever since the beginning of society from murals in ancient Egypt to cave carvings in the South of France. There has been a strong presence of equine art throughout history that doesn't seem to be stopping. So what is it about these animals that make them so important to our culture and us?

The first known wall carvings of horses are from around 30,000 BC. At this point in history, we were most likely to still be gazing at the creatures from afar, as the domestication of horses didn't actually happen until 3,000 BC. We can already see an obvious fascination for horses so early on in history.

After the domestication of horses, they took a back seat in the art world as Christian faith themed paintings became the most popular theme. It wasn't until the Renaissance era (1300 – 1600) that equine art had its own renaissance with artists like Leonardo da Vinci, who was commissioned to make the largest horse sculpture in the world. 

It was the following Baroque period (1600-1760) that depicting horses in paintings really become en vogue. This came about with the birth of British horse racing and hunting, popularised by King James I, and later, King Charles II.

Suddenly, Lords and Knights wished to be on their noble steeds and prize horses in their portraits. This was the beginning of horses used in serious UK sports, and the status symbol of the day.

The 1700s was also the time of George Stubbs – one of the most influential artists in equine studies. Nicknamed 'the horse painter', George Stubbs developed a fascination for the animals in childhood that later developed into his artist career. Stubbs would not only paint the horses he was so captivated by, but would also go on to produce anatomically correct studies after dissecting carcases. These studies were a major influence on later artists who would use Stubbs' work as reference for their own paintings.

British horse sports continued to be extremely popular a century after the work of Stubbs, and into the era of Romanticism (1800 – 1850).

Famous artist, Edgar Degas, joined the long list of history's equine artists and painted horses at the races. Degas was also one of the first artists to use photographs as a reference for his paintings.

Famous photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge took equine study to new levels with his breakthrough in using motion photography. As a pioneer of motion photography, Muybridge took some very important shots of horses that aided countless artists on the anatomy of the horse. This footage also helped answer a centuries old debate about whether a horse's four legs were all off the ground at a point in its stride. (The answer is yes). Some of Muybridge’s animal locomotion prints can be seen in Kingston Museum, Surrey.

 

Since then, we’ve used horses for lots of different purposes in our society – sport, military, the American West expeditions, and agriculture. The growth in demand for horses has certainly lead to more depictions in many styles and forms.

But what about the modern world? There has been a definite subsidence in the need for horses as working animals and companions, but our intrigue seems not to have been abated.

Skewbald by Paul Burgess

Even up to today where our online gallery boasts a huge variety of equine art, which is one of the most popular categories.

It seems that we have a deep-rooted fascination for these magnificent creatures that was stirred thousands of years ago and seems to have stayed. Perhaps it is purely because they are beautiful animals: they themselves are a true work of art.

Image credits

User: Cro-Magnon peoples/ Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

User: Cliff/ Flickr/ Public Domain

User:
George Stubbs
 - http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/george-stubbs-whistlejacket

/ Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

User: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/ Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

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