“Let Loose the Horses, and Watch Them Run…” ; The Horse Throughout the History of Art.

Man has been making representations of horses since before he acquired written language. The horse images from the caves at Chauvet are ca, 30,000 years old, and those at Lascaux are ca. 16,000 years old. Think about that, and what a powerful effect this majestic creature has had on the  mind and soul of man. We have been making representations of the horse for longer than any other image!


Above, are two images from the caves at Lascaux, below, the caves at Chauvet.

The horse has been our partner in transportation, agriculture, war, hunting, and leisure. A human being astride a horse has always been a symbol of power, whether for the hunter, warrior, or monarch. Ocassionally the horse has even been used as a source of food, and what a drastic underuse of his qualities and abilities, that is. Over time, throughout the march of history, the style in which the horse has been portrayed has changed. However, I actually find, that it is quite remarkable, how similar representations have remained, over time. Here is a brief history of this magnificent animal.

Above, two pieces from at least 800 B.C.. Below, the piece on the left is undated, found in the Kyber pass by Romans, right, is an early Chinese representation.



Above are two horses from the Han Dynasty period, several hundred years later than the previous two. It is amazing how quickly the repesentation of the horse became anatomically correct and classically, three dimensional.


A Greek vase, top, left, and a beloved sculpture from the Parthenon, right. This horse, on the east freize, has spent the night pulling the moon’s chariot across the sky. His weariness and  almost tortured fatigue, seems epochal. Below is Paulo Uccello’s early Renaissance masterpiece which shows both the use of the horse in war and as a symbol of dynamic power.


Above, is one Leonardo da Vinci’s famous sketches of horses, on the right, a model of a planned 24 foot bronze sculpture. He had actually built it in clay, but it was destroyed when the French attacked Milan. It was a portrait of an Andalusian, the breed favored by his sponsors, the Sforza. It was to have been the largest bronze casting in the world.


Above, left, is a Roman statue of Marcus Aurelius, the two to the right are by the Northern Renaissance master, Durer. The horse has quickly become a proud symbol of the warrior-prince, and bestows his majesty and power upon his rider. We see this trend continue into the Baroque period with Rubens version of the Battle of Anghiari. This drawing is considered to be a copy of Leonardo’s study, for his famous painting which is lost.

The 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries saw many extraordinary horse paintings by some of my favorite artists. Below are many examples.

Painting in the mid 17th century were two great masters of the horse, and pretty much, everything else. Below, three paintings by the incomparable Diego Velasquez. Below these,an earlier work, by Titian, and one by van Dyke.



Below are two examples each from the early to mid-19th century by Theodore Gericault, followed by a drawing and a painting by Eugene Delacroix.



George Stubbs, an iconic English painter of the mid 18th and early 19th centuries, was known primarily for his paintings of horses.


Benjamin Marshall, below, was another, slightly later, English master of the horse painting.


Meanwhile, the 19th century produced two especially renowned painters of the horse. The American, Frederic Remington, and the Frenchman, Edgar Degas. Below, are examples of each. Remington was one of the first artists to capture the true gait of the animal, while Degas was probably the first to use photography to aid his work.



In the 20th century, with the decline of the horse’s traditional role in society, the motif, in art, came to be used much more symbolically. The horse came to represent, particularly in the hands of two modern geniuses, Pablo Picasso and Marino Marini, the darker side of man, his alienation and oppression, his fear. Majesty remains, but it is twisted by the scars of the times, by  the violence of modern politics, by a world often at war, and the existential dread that seemed to permeate our collective experience.



Below, the heart breaking representations of Marini. Forlorn, desperate, the soul of both man and beast is at risk.




Here are four of my favorite contemporary horse paintings, and two sculptures. They evoke mystery and alienation, but also searching, and hope. The sculptures, below, are by Deborah Butterfield.



Above, are Alex Colville, and Enrique Martinez Celaya. Below are Eugenia Mitsanas and JL Savaut.


The horse has been a symbol throughout time of man’s relationship to nature, and the higher aspects of himself. Although the animal was domesticated, early on in the advance of our species, his nobility always captured the soul and imagination of man. He was power, he was freedom, he was loyal, he was everything we aspired to be. There is a popular saying, that the dog is man’s best friend. That maybe true, and I have had many and loved then dearly. But the horse, though I have only ridden them sporadically, quickens my heart and makes me soar, like nothing else.


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23 Comments on "“Let Loose the Horses, and Watch Them Run…” ; The Horse Throughout the History of Art."

  1. Kathy says:

    So exciting to see the post. As you know, I love horses, and have owned one.
    The horse is such a rich subject, a metaphor for so many things. I love the 4 contemporary paintings towards the bottom, and a Marino Marini horse sculpture, would be in my top 10 list of art pieces I’d love to own. Eugenia Mitsanas’ horses are so special too!

  2. Sue W. says:

    I always learn something from your blog entries! “The horse came to represent… the darker side of man, his alienation and oppression, his fear.”
    Didn’t know this!
    Thanks for your research and insights!

    • David Leeds says:

      Sue, it seems in the turbulent years of two world wars, and much social upheaval, that was the case. Now, I think there are more varied symbolic representations, that are not as bleak as in much of the 20th century.

  3. metscan says:

    Thank you David!
    You made my weekend : ).
    What a delightful, thorough post about horse paintings. The first ones, the cave horses are delightful.
    No words for da Vinci. The Mitsanas painting is stunning.
    A special thank you for adding the foal by Sauvat along. It so reminds me of our own foal ( born in 1997 )..
    Simply beautiful : )!!

    • David Leeds says:

      Mette, I find the painting by Eugenia Mitsanas to be extraordinary as well. She is a wonderful painter I have only just come to know through Kathy. She was featured on Kathy’s FB studio page, Kathy Peck Studio. Her series of horses is full of mystery, hope, and beauty. And the Sauvat is so lovely!. What better way to end than with a new foal.

  4. Katherine says:

    Lots of lovely examples of the horse in art through history. One omission sticks out for me though — where are Deborah Butterfield’s sculptures?

  5. the two horses at the begining of the page from 800b.c. really surprised me i though they were modern art..

  6. Beautifully written, David. This is such a great survey on the role of the horse in art. I really enjoyed the progression from the past to the present. I also thought about images of the horse in England with its tradition of riding and hunting. There is so much to this topic when you start to think about it. Thank you for sending me on the path! I do love your posts.

    • David Leeds says:

      Thanks Sunday. I could have gone on and on about the long and great English tradition of equine painting. There are so many distinguished representations of the horse and particularly, the hunt. I picked those two because I thought they established the cornerstones of the distinguished English obsession with all things horse.

  7. David,
    Thank you for such a lovely article and images. Horses inspire me daily, so I am happy my horse images were part of its inspiration.

    Kathy, I didn’t know you have/had a horse!!!
    Deborah Butterfield was ceramicist Robert Arneson’s student at UC Davis years before I studied with him. I was in awe of her–her choice of subject matter, her materials, the scale. Her horses were a big inspiration for mine, yet it took me a long time to own my own creative expression of my love for these creatures.

  8. Ulf Skei says:

    Great creatures! It’s a symbiosis of kind, working for both parties it would seem!

    • David Leeds says:

      Ulf, it certainly has been a beneficial and highly important relationship for mankind. There does, indeed, seem to be some kind of symbiosis. Yet, I can’t help feeling that man, as he has, so often, with his relationships with the natural world and the animal kingdom comes out on top, to the detriment of his “partners.”

  9. scott kahn says:

    And of course, Susan Rothenberg more recently.

  10. Curator says:

    Might I make a small correction to your great post on equine art…The Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave has paintings which date to 30000 – 32000 years ago. There are cave paintings there of ‘horses, cattle, reindeer, etc., the walls of the Chauvet Cave include many predatory animals: Cave lions, panthers, bears, owls, and Cave Hyenas. Also pictured are rhinos.’ See wikipedia for further info.

    • David Leeds says:

      Thanks for the information. Noted and updated.

      • Curator says:

        It should also be noted that until Muybridge captured the horse in rapid gallop in 1877, no artist correctly copied the gait of the moving animal.
        The horses importance in England, and the rest of the world for that matter, stems from it being the only practical mode of transportation on land until steam powered engines in the 17th century, and then in the 18th century the internal combustion engine of the Niépce brothers in France. The horseless carriage/motorcar was simultaneously developed by many engineers in Europe, and the power of the engines determined by how many horses they were the equivalent of, which is still used today. Art and science are harmonious siblings.
        I’m English, and can attest to our love of the horse and horsepower.

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard