Horse Power

From the 17,000-year-old cave paintings at Lascaux to that iconic ‘80s Trapper Keeper, humans have been making art about horses longer than we have been riding them.

Art featuring horses is so prominent in the Getty’s collections that this is the third Iris article on the subject and there are still plenty of noble steeds with luscious manes to admire.

According to paintings curator Anne Woollett, “artists have been drawn to horses for the challenges of representing complex figures in space and in motion. They have also been drawn to the challenge of articulating the character of the equine subject and that of his human companions—such as nobility of spirit, virtue, fortitude, or companionship.”

Here are just a few examples of the many horses in the Getty’s stables.

A Dappled Gray Stallion Tethered in a Landscape

A Dappled Gray Stallion Tethered in a Landscape; Unknown maker, Prague School, late 16th century; probably Prague, Czech Republic (ex-Holy Roman Empire); about 1584 – 1587; Watercolor and gouache, heightened with silver and gold, within gold framing lines, on vellum; 19.5 x 27.5 cm (7 11/16 x 10 13/16 in.); 2013.57

In this meticulously executed drawing, a light gray dappled stallion stands tethered to a tree stump in a verdant landscape. The well-groomed horse appears calm yet aware of the viewer as if posing for its portrait. Eye-catching details abound in this drawing such as the animal’s direct gaze, its textured mane and tail, the carefully tied knot of the bridle, the dappled pattern on its hindquarters, the small nails embedded in its shoes. And in the landscape: white clouds, undulating green hills, and a winding stream, a tree stump, and roads.

It is quite likely that the same aristocratic person who once proudly owned the stallion also commissioned this drawing. Two similar depictions of magnificent horses in other collections appear to be created by the same as-yet-unknown artist, presumably for the same patron. Small stitching holes in the sheets of paper suggest that they were once bound together in an album. The medium used, gouache on vellum—in addition to the fine painting style—reflects a tradition of manuscript illumination.

Evidence points to the possibility that the drawings’ patron was Moravian Baron Jan Šembera of Bučovice and that the highly accomplished artist was associated with the court of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in Prague. The horse itself offers a hint, resembling the Lipizzan breed prized by Renaissance aristocrats associated with the imperial Habsburg court.

Rearing Horse

Rearing Horse; Adriaen de Vries (Dutch, about 1556 – 1626); Netherlands; 1605–1610; Bronze; 49.5 × 54.6 × 17.8 cm (19 1/2 × 21 1/2 × 7 in.); 86.SB.488

This rearing horse’s two hind legs, upon which he balances his powerful bulk, serve as the sole support for the body of this large animal. Pawing the air and tilting his head to the left, the horse electrifies the space around him. The sculptor Adriaen de Vries further suggested the animal’s vitality through the open mouth, flared nostrils, and protruding veins on its belly. The horse’s lack of shoes suggests that this is a stallion kept for stud.

De Vries executed more than a dozen bronze statuettes of horses and horses with riders, only four of which survive or are securely identified. This is one of the rare signed ones. The horse’s daring pose makes it a tour de force of bronze casting, and the beauty of its patina, or surface treatment, testifies to the artist’s reputation as an exceptional bronzemaker.

L’Empereur en voyage, from L’Histoire de la Chine Series

Tapestry: The Emperor on a Journey from The Story of the Emperor of China Series; After cartoons by Guy-Louis Vernansal (French, 1648 – 1729), and Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer (French, 1636 – 1699), and Jean-Baptiste Belin de Fontenay (French, 1653 – 1715), Beauvais Manufactory (French, founded 1664), woven under the direction of Philippe Béhagle (French, 1641 – 1705); Beauvais, France; about 1690 – 1705; Wool and silk; 254 x 415.3 cm (100 x 163 1/2 in.); 83.DD.339

In a tapestry from the series known as The Story of the Emperor of China, four attendants carry the emperor in a palanquin. Two guards on horseback follow the procession, one wearing a sword and bearing the imperial banner and the other carrying a quiver of arrows over his shoulder. The path in front is strewn with cut flowers, apparently from baskets like the one that remains in the center bottom, resting on the border. Birds fill the air above and the palace is visible in the distance.

Attic Red-Figure Kylix

Attic Red-Figure Kylix, about 510 B.C., Attributed to Briseis Painter. Terracotta, 4 1/16 × 11 1/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, 82.AE.42. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

The interior of this Athenian red‑figure kylix or cup depicts a young man in a rocky landscape wearing an outfit intended for hunting or traveling. The youth’s identity is uncertain; the hero Theseus is frequently shown in such garb, but the figure could just as easily be an ordinary youth.

Theseus would certainly be an inspirational figure for the young men depicted on the cup’s exterior. Both sides show the dokimasia, an inspection of the cavalry that took place annually at Athens. The young cavalrymen, who wear caps with long earflaps, present their horses.

Owning a horse was a marker of great wealth, and Greek vases often depict the activities of the elite, such as hunting, riding, or attending the symposium.

Votive Relief (The Cottenham Relief)

Relief Fragment with a Horse and Rider; Unknown; Attica, Greece; about 500 B.C.; Blue-gray marble; 27.6 × 30.5 × 6 cm (10 7/8 × 12 × 2 3/8 in.); 78.AA.59

Votive Relief (The Cottenham Relief), about 500 B.C., Greek (Attic). Blue-gray marble, 10 7/8 × 12 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, 78.AA.59. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

A male youth leans back to restrain a lively horse on this relief fragment, which preserves only the top left portion of the original scene. The relief’s time-worn, damaged state gives only a hint of its former appearance. The surface has eroded, erasing many carved and painted details such as the horse’s bridle. Three holes visible in the horse’s mouth and the youth’s hand likely originally served as anchor points for added bronze reins. Young men and their horses were a popular theme in Greek art. The horse was a symbol of prestige, wealth, and status. Even modest reliefs depicting youths with the animal imparted a message of high social rank. This relief was probably set up in a sanctuary as a votive offering, perhaps to honor the victor of a horse race.

Discovered and dug up in 1911 by a farm laborer in Cottenham, near Cambridge, England, this relief is known as the Cottenham Relief. An antiquarian named Roger Gale lived in Cottenham in 1728, and this relief had probably belonged to him. How it came to be lost or disposed of by him and then buried remains unknown.

The Piebald Horse

The “Piebald” Horse; Paulus Potter (Dutch, 1625 – 1654); about 1650 – 1654; Oil on canvas; 50.2 × 45.1 cm (19 3/4 × 17 3/4 in.); 88.PA.87

The “Piebald” Horse, about 1650–1654, Paulus Potter. Oil on canvas, 19 3/4 × 17 3/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 88.PA.87. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

One of the most well-known horses in the Museum’s collection is this a gray, spotted horse that stands silhouetted against rolling, stormy, clouds, turning its head slightly to suggest its alertness to its surroundings. Paulus Potter, the finest Dutch animal painter of his day, depicted the horse with scrupulous attention to physical detail: the glossy sheen of its coat and mane, the watery moistness of its eye, and the sleekly elegant lines of the animal’s body. At the same time, the artist imbued the horse with an individualized personality that combines wildness with acute sensitivity. Indeed, the animal seems to respond to the distant sound of the hunt transpiring in the middle distance.

The meaning of the painting is twofold. It is probably a horse portrait, perhaps commissioned by the owner of the country house at the right. The closely observed rendering of this domestic animal implies the pride of ownership that a wealthy Dutch landowner might have taken in the possession of such livestock. On the other hand, the horse is untethered and seems to roam free. His immaculate grooming and position before cultivated fields, however, imply that the source of Dutch prosperity lay in the control that humans were able to exert over brute nature.