Hoofbeats and Heartbeats: the Horse in American Art

August 21 to November 21, 2010



Wall texts from the exhibition


Hoofbeats and Heartbeats: The Horse in American Art

The light step of a carriage horse, effortlessly towing a sleigh across snow-covered ground; the gut-splitting buck of a bronco; the confident poise of a general's mount at the battlefield's edge; the freedom of hooves, breaking fast and pounding across the open plain -- horses have captivated American artists for centuries, inspiring works of art that in turn have inspired us. As Lexington celebrates the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, The Art Museum of the University of Kentucky is proud to present this exhibition, which chronicles the dynamic role of the horse in our country's art and history.
The beauty and elegance of a horse is undeniable. It is seen in the lingering attention John Trumbull devotes to George Washington's mount or in the glistening musculature of racehorses depicted by Edward Troye and Franklin Voss. But the image of the horse has also played a meaningful role in our cultural history, from the Revolutionary period to the present day. Horses were crucial to building the United States. They have carried generals into battle, forged the trail of westward expansion, hustled for cowboys, and sprinted under jockeys for cheering fans. Today, horses continue to fuel an economic industry but are also valued simply for the way they enrich our daily lives.
Curated by Ingrid Cartwright, assistant professor of art history at Western Kentucky University, this exhibition and the accompanying catalogue trace the many ways the horse has been pictured in American art and what this magnificent animal has meant to Americans over time. Heroes: The Horse on the Battlefield chronicles American military leaders and their horses; Hoofbeats: The Horse as a Symbol of Freedom investigates the American ideal of the wild, free horse and the cowboy; Horse Power: The Horse at Work in America includes workhorses that helped build our nation; and Heartbeats: America's Romance with Horses reveals how horses have been a source of recreation and personal inspiration to us all.
This exhibition and catalogue is made possible with the generous support of our Presenting Sponsor, the Friends of the Art Museum at the University of Kentucky. We are also grateful for the support of the Keeneland Foundation, UK HealthCare, Wimbledon Farm, The William A. Marquard Family Foundation, Becky Faulconer, James Kenan, Angel Levas, Mrs. Richard Cooper and James C. Albesetti.
Promotional partners include The Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, Insight Communications, Meridian Chiles, Joseph Beth Booksellers and WUKY.

Heroes: The Horse and the Battlefield

The image of a leader on horseback has deep historical roots, echoing back to the equestrian statues of ancient Rome. Over the centuries, artists rekindled the tradition of depicting military leaders on horseback, sparking associations with imperial greatness and conveying a message about the rider's talent for good governance. "As one spurs on a horse and leads it where he wants," reads a famous adage, "so shall the rider lead the people according to his will." In these paintings and sculptures of American leaders on horseback, artists emphasize riders who manage their horses with the same steady confidence and control needed to guide the reins of a great nation.
Rembrandt Peale's portrait of George Washington, a noted horseman (possibly atop Blueskin, a favorite steed) portrays the first president in a pose that highlights his control over his mount. Ancient Greek generals trained their horses to perform highly skilled maneuvers like rearing and striking on command, which could be used as a surprise tactic to unseat the enemy. The practice of training horses to perform powerful but deliberate movements was revived in Europe in the Renaissance, gaining favor as a courtly pastime for leaders and aristocrats who esteemed this art of haut école (high school riding). Washington appears to be performing one of these precise movements here -- the renvers, or haunches- in, a movement that is still a part of modern dressage competition today. Washington's dignified pose and pinpoint control over the gray horse would have added to his aura as a gentlemanly hero and able leader. Ralph Earl's portrait of Andrew Jackson on Sam Patch appears to capture the same movement, and it is likely that both paintings refer to the same European precedent.
Advances in long-range weaponry made grand equine battles largely obsolete by the 1800s, but painters still gloried in the drama of horses at full pitch. By the last decades of the nineteenth century, photography proved that horses did not run with their legs spread outwardly in a "flying gallop." Although artists understood this was not an accurate representation, the tradition persisted, likely because it connoted the eminent fury of a horseback battle and the courageous physical challenge from which only a real hero could rise.

Hoofbeats: The Horse as a Symbol of Freedom

"I knew the railroad was coming," Frederic Remington wrote in 1905, recalling his trip west decades earlier to Montana as a hardy nineteen-year old, "...I knew the wild riders and the vacant land were about to vanish forever, and the more I considered the subject, the bigger the Forever loomed." Remington's desire to capture what remained of wild America mirrored a sentiment shared by many late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century American artists, as the memory of an uncharted frontier faded into history. Lamenting the rapidly changing character of the American landscape, they envisioned this older and wilder era as an antidote to an increasingly modern and structured America, whose growing web of cities, factories, trains, and tracks grew more tangled from coast to coast.
The horse was a living emblem of a rougher, less-civilized nation, not only as the companion of cowboys and frontiersmen, but also as a wild and willful animal that resisted the shackles of man and desired, above all, to live unbounded in endless open spaces. At the same time, the horse's innate wildness amounted to a last opportunity for conquest in an increasingly urban nation with few remaining places to be explored and mapped. In painting and sculpture of this era, we see images of horses breaking free across the open prairie, but also scenes of wild horses being rounded up and new mounts being broken in.
For artists like Remington and Charles M. Russell, the horse's innate wildness was a favorite theme. Both excelled in dramatic scenes of breaking in, which often suggested a literal breaking of horse or rider. In the case of Russell's Bronc to Breakfast, it includes the destruction of much of the camp's mess brigade as a madly bucking horse tries to throw its rider while trampling the makings of the morning meal. Remington's Bronco Buster, an icon of this genre, depicts a horse in a similar moment of fury as it protests its rider's attempt at domestication.

Horse Power: The Horse at Work in America

From the colonial era until the early twentieth century, American life revolved around horses in both commerce and transport, and as one of our country's greatest natural resources. Workhorses were needed for the smallest and largest of tasks -- from a simple trip to the market to the construction of roads, the cultivation of crops, the herding of livestock, the delivery of mail, and the transportation of settlers and goods from coast to coast. They were the nation's most ubiquitous utility, yet still less present in the public imagination than their flashier relatives on the racecourse, in the show ring, or harnessed to fine carriages that marked status for stylish society.
In art, the image of the working horse reflects the great physical effort necessary to build the nation, as well as the perseverance, bravery, and patience this monumental task required. Painters and sculptors took great care to emphasize the workhorses' reliable strength, focusing on their ample musculature, powerful hooves, and sheer size while also pointing toward their tractable nature and ability to perform tasks willingly and readily. Images of cowboys and trappers often show close relationships between horse and rider. In paintings like Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait's Trapper Looking Out, the rider and his keen gray horse appear to be dedicated partners, pursuing their goal together.
For much of the nineteenth century, workhorses were symbols of the virtues of hard work and progress, though this perspective changed dramatically in the industrial era. Placed aside new gasoline and electric-powered automobiles and trucks, workhorses now appeared outdated, unpredictable, and inefficient. Anti-horse sentiment in many cities pointed to the horse as a major source of urban blight, which, along with waste and dirt, included public nuisances like odors and flies. Others were more sympathetic, as newly founded animal rights groups like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) lobbied for less abuse of and greater care for equine laborers. Despite the changing times, the role of the workhorse in America was long lived; horses were used for heavy hauling in cities through the 1920s and beyond, and served widely in other labor roles-particularly agricultural-through the middle of the twentieth century.

Heartbeats: America's Romance with Horses

In addition to the practical roles horses have played in American history, they have also been central figures in the private lives of Americans in sport, leisure, and their imagination. Initially, it was racing that stoked the country's interest with horses. By the early nineteenth century, horseracing had become the American sport. Popular match races drew tens of thousands of spectators and champion horses rose to superstar status in the press and in the American consciousness. The Industrial Revolution of the late nineteenth century stabilized work schedules and freed weekends, giving the growing middle class more time to flock to the racecourses. Many spectators were intrigued by the newly popular sport of harness racing, which had smaller purses than Thoroughbred races, but charged lower gate fares, making it an affordable alternative and giving the trotters a truly democratic image.
Prestigious equine events like the Devon and New York (later National) Horse Shows were established in the 1880s and 1890s, giving privileged classes a venue to compete in jumping, driving, and showing in-hand. By the 1900s, horse and livestock showing spread across the country to county fairs, such as those pictured by American regionalist painters John Steuart Curry and Harry Louis Freund. These events offered all Americans opportunities to participate and also served to advance breeding standards and practices.
Edward Troye, one of the earliest painters of American racehorses, created portraits of the country's top Thoroughbreds for breeders in Kentucky and Alabama. Artists like Nicholas Winfield Scott Leighton and Louis Maurer continued in this genre, presenting racing scenes and stars, which were frequently offered as prints to the general public by Currier & Ives. Works like Paul Manship's End of Day and Carl Rungius' On the Range record how even the simplest of moments shared with horses -- a stop along the trail or a pause at day's end -- could be profound and meaningful. Today, horses continue to inspire contemporary artists like Deborah Butterfield, who finds fresh inspiration and new artistic possibilities in the equine form.

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