“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. Susan Tiner says:

    I knew Mette would be delighted with this post! I love all of the images. I was going to ask about Deborah Butterfield’s sculptures but I see that another commenter already mentioned them.

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