“And when the rising sun has first breathed on us with his panting horses, over there the red evening star is lighting his late lamps.” — Virgil, 70-19 BC
Horses have throughout history played a multitude of roles in their interactions with man. They have been exploited, revered and loved, have been our allies in war, partners in hunting and work, and they have been companions in play. Horses are a part of our mythology seen at different times as symbols of beauty, of fear, victory and wild, untamed nature. Without the horse, our history might have taken any number of courses, for where would we have been without horsepower? How would our battles, invasions, conquests and explorations been changed without the horse as a partner?
From such close alliance it is only natural that the horse has also figured prominently in our art from prehistoric times to the present, an image celebrated by countless unnamed artists, as well as by those with names like Edgar Degas, Thomas Eakins, Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Hokusai, da Vinci, Diego Rivera, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh and Frederic Remington. We have primitive cave art of horses dating to 15,000 BC, the sophistication of Leonardo da Vince, and the abstracted forms of Picasso, a long and ongoing archive charting in pictures our relationship with a noble animal.
Throughout time artists have applied a long list of symbols and attributes to the horse, and we see them alternately as reflections of power, light and dark, life and death. Cave paintings at Lascaux in France show horses flowing across the stone surface like an elemental force of life, while another artist represents them as messengers in the spirit world. We even find the horse associated with sexual energy or lust, as seen in Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting, The Nightmare.
Horse: From Noble Steeds to Beast of Burden is a book by Lorraine Harrison published in 2000. It offers the ultimate celebration of this animal so closely linked to man. The author’s choice of chapter headings makes plain the depth of this relationship: The Thrill of the Chase, Beasts of Burden, Wild Horses, Good Companions, Warhorses, Mythical Horses, Horsepower, and the last, Performing Horses.
Helpers Without Hands (1914) by Edwin Noble
During Captain Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic in 1911 only seventeen of his ponies survived the sea journey. Reliance on so few horses may have contributed to the expedition’s failure.
The Jockey (1899) by Toulouse-Lautrec
The artist stirs a feeling of movement and speed in the way his horses gallop away from the viewer.
Circus Poster (1890s) Artist unknown
In the nineteenth-century the circus was dominated by equestrian performances. One of those was scenic riding, or pantomime on horseback. This poster shows an artistic version of that pantomime.
Knight, Death and Devil (1513) by Albrecht Dürer
Like soldiers throughout history, this knight’s companions are not only his horse and dog, but also the specters of Death and the Devil. Death carries the hourglass of time and rides a horse with a bowed head.
Washing the Horse (1909) by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida
Spanish painter and graphic artist Sorolla shows that no fear or distrust exists between these two as they emerge from the waves onto the beach—only the innocence of carefree childhood and cooperative obedience.
Hodo Gaya on the Tokaido (1831) by Katsushika Hokusai
Taken from Thirty-Six Views of Fuji, this woodblock print shows how essential the horse was for transport in the mountainous region around Mt Fuji.
Two Horsemen (15th/16th century) by Leonardo da Vinci
A metal point drawing by the artist showing a subtle, yet indelible effect. Riders and their horses are molded into one coherent sculptural effect.
White Stallion (19th century) by James Ward
Thick paint in lines across the stallion’s coat, mane and tail create a sense of life pulsing through the animal’s body. As wind lifts the mane from the forehead, the profile of the horse is reminiscent of the mythical unicorn.