Munnings' paintings captured all facets of equestrian life perfectly, such as this painting of hounds preparing for a fox hunt.
The path Sir Alfred Munnings travelled to artistic greatness commenced with a simple carriage ride with his father. In his memoir the young lad described the thrill:
"I can see the mare's pricked up ears in front of us, and the short, silky, silver mane in the breeze. I can hear the hooves on the road, the jingle of the silver-mounted harness and the sound of the wheels as we bowled along."
The leading light of English sporting art in the 20th century, Munnings captured the sensation of light and bright colors as stunningly as he captured the spirit of horses. Among his stable of discerning patrons were George V and Elizabeth II of England and American royalty Paul Mellon and John Hay Whitney.
In his autobiography, "An Artist's Life," Munnings wrote: "The horse is one of the greater miracles of nature. Although horses have given me much trouble and many sleepless nights, they have been my supporters and friends. They have been my destiny."
Sixty-eight masterworks by Munnings will be on display in the exhibition "Out in the Open" at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Va., from April 24 through Sept. 15. The exhibition sections include To Lamorna, Country Life, Riding to Hounds, Racing and Chasing, Portraits, and Landscapes.
SIR ALFRED MUNNINGS
Less than an hour drive from Washington D.C., Middleburg is set in the foothills of the Blue Ridge and Bull Run mountains. A one-stoplight town, a stroll through the brick and stone downtown is like a trip back in time. The village contains tack shops, antiques stores, boutiques and the Red Fox Inn & Tavern, billed as the oldest (1728) continually operated inn in America. Here steeplechasers, foxhunters and top-flight equestrians mingle with country squires, businessmen and political power brokers.
Working primarily in oils with a few watercolors, Munnings' racing pictures broke with tradition. He portrayed the assorted tasks of trainers, jockeys, and grooms as they prepared for the race depicting the tense moments when horses and riders are poised for the start, rather than the race itself. The artist believed the start of a race embodied the power of the Thoroughbred runner and the suspense involved in racing.
A MUNNINGS PAINTING OF LIFE AROUND THE BARN
The Munnings exhibit presents a cross-section of the artist's plein-air (open-air) works. His early paintings portray a variety of subjects, including vibrant scenes of gypsy encampments, wild ponies, county fairs and the rolling landscapes of the English countryside. Still, for those who love horses his work often kindles strong emotions.
The exhibition includes works from important private collectors and public institutions such as the Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum in Dedham, England; the Yale Center for British Arts in New Haven, Connecticut; and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs.
Munnings was born in 1878 into a miller's family in the sleepy rural village on the Suffolk-Norwich border. The earliest years of his career were spent roaming the English countryside, painting in open air.
"He would paint outside for long hours even in the harshest weather," said Claudia Pfeiffer, the Munnings curator for the exhibit at the National Sporting Library and Museum.
"You can't think of Munnings without seeing those wonderful impressionist landscapes he painted. A scene never became repetitious no matter how many times he had done it. He had a tremendous sense of the subject he was painting."
At age 21, Munnings lost the sight in his right eye on one of his jaunts - pierced by a thorn as he lifted a puppy over a prickly bush. He taught himself to paint with one eye, writing of the frustration of sometimes missing the canvas with his brush. He studied equine anatomy extensively in Stubbs' Anatomy of the Horse at art school in Norwich.
"Times changed from Stubbs and his static portraits to Munnings when he was able to express more personality and motion," Pfeiffer noted. "This came about following Muybridge's groundbreaking photos of a horse galloping. Munnings was a master at capturing the motion. He took it to another level."
Munnings painted in full sunlight, skies blue, kindly clouds, or more challenging, when daylight is gives way to darkness and figures and horses are illuminated by the last glimmerings of sunset and the little light reflected in a rippling stream.
In his foxhunting pictures, he focused not on the action but on the sensation of light, color and movement he observed in quiet moments such as "Winter Sunshine: Huntsman by a Covert," created in 1913.
In the twilight of his career, the artist walked away from lucrative commissioned portraits, concentrating instead on the inner workings of the horse world. He spent his days studying and sketching the early morning gallops and the vibrancy of the racecourse itself.
In a tip of their silk top hats, Newmarket racecourse executives permitted Munnings to drive his car up to the starting post. There he would draw or paint the power, grace and beauty of the Thoroughbreds with their jockeys outfitted in colorful silks. His expansive scenes were superbly captured in the 1947 painting, "In the Saddling Paddock."
Munnings wrote: "I was determined to get everything in the picture exactly in the right place. I drew it in with light red, afterwards thinly painting piece by piece, in monochrome, the sky in pale pinks, the hills in a warmer tone. This took time for I knew where everything was going. Never was I so keen on a picture."
ONE OF MUNNINGS' FAMED START PAINTINGS
Knighthood was bestowed on the artist in 1944. He died in July 1959. After his death, his wife turned their home - Castle House - into a museum that houses the largest single collection of the artist's works. A lifelong convivial man, the village pub in Mendham is named after him.
The artist was once asked: what is the purpose of pictures? His piercing reply: "They are to fill a man's soul with admiration and sheer joy. Not bewilder and daze him."