Theodore Gericault's "The Derby at Epsom" is a notable piece of horse racing art. (Photo by WikiArt)
Throughout time horses have held a certain allure for artists of all types. Painters, especially, have considered the animal among the most challenging subjects in portraiture. With its shiny coat of multiple hues, delicate balance of conformation, and well-defined physique – not to mention an aura that isn’t necessarily plain to see – representing a horse is enough to drive even the most accomplished artists to madness.
Racehorses, specifically, pose even more problems. How is an artist supposed to depict speed in a still image? Before photography, artists could not even see or understand a Thoroughbred’s gait, as its legs moved to fast for them to recognize that the hooves were not hitting the ground in unison.
Even further, what is an artist to do if they seek to communicate the intangible characteristics prized in top-class Thoroughbreds? For example: determination, class, or a willingness to respond to a jockey’s subtle cues? These are not necessarily skills that are taught in art schools, even though the most revered equine artists have demonstrated an ability to capture a horse’s essence as much as its look.
Here’s my list of the 10 greatest artists across a variety of eras and media (as in, the materials used) that have made racing a subject of their work. As you look, consider whether the artist has captured what you love about Thoroughbreds and share your own thoughts and additional suggestions in the comments section.
1. Edgar Degas (France, 1834-1917)
Degas is easily the most famous painter of racehorses. He is thought of as one of the earliest practitioners of what came to be known as Impressionism, though the artist himself disliked that term because his work was about disciplined technique, not the so-called spontaneity associated with that movement.
Beginning in the 1860s, Degas completed at least 45 oil paintings of horses and even kept a taxidermied horse in his studio for guidance. The artist said he was interested in horses because of their complex anatomies, and especially appreciated racing’s movements and the vibrant colors seen in the jockey silks.
JOCKEYS BEFORE THE TRIBUNE by EDGAR DEGAS
Photo by WikiMedia Commons
As with his favorite subject, ballet dancers, Degas concerned himself more with the aesthetics of racing than the performances. He was a regular at the tracks around Paris and, in 1872, likely visited the Fair Grounds when he traveled to visit his Creole mother’s family in New Orleans.
2. George Stubbs (England, 1724-1806)
Stubbs’ portraits of horses were prized among British royals and nobility for their unusually realistic qualities. In his early 30s the artist spent a year and a half dissecting equine carcasses on his own time to better understand their anatomy.
WHISTLEJACKET by GEORGE STUBBS
Photo by Wikipedia
While he had no peers when it came to accuracy, Stubbs also made a massive conceptual leap forward by using a solid color as a background instead of natural surroundings. Without the context of an actual location, viewers and critics were astounded that someone would use so much expensive canvas and pigment on a mere animal. The result was a horse that looked more heroic and significant in stature.
3. Theodore Gericault (France, 1791-1824)
Like Stubbs before him, Gericault needed time with horses to gain a better understanding of their anatomy. After studying at the Louvre, he found work in the palace stables at Versailles, where he could watch horses in motion.
His best known painting – now at the Louvre – is the monumental "The Raft of the Medusa," capturing the aftermath of a shipwreck that was a major international news story with figures positioned in classical poses.
THE DERBY AT EPSOM by THEODORE GERICAULT
Photo by WikiArt
Three years later he painted "The Derby at Epsom" during his travels to England. The work reflects the intensity of an important race not only in its depictions of hard-trying horses and riders going all-out, but also through the dramatic sky and resulting shadows.
4. Eadweard Muybridge (England, 1830-1904)
Muybridge’s pioneering work changed photography and painting forever. While living in the United States in the 1870s, he developed processes to capture multiple frames of animals in motion, revealing the mechanics of how they run.
THE HORSE IN MOTION BY EADWEARD MUYBRIDGE
Illustration by Wikipedia
At the behest of California governor and racehorse owner Leland Stanford, on the land that would become Stanford University, the photographer caught images of horses trotting and galloping. He did so by lining up several customized cameras triggered when a running horse tripped sequential threads. Viewed in succession, the prints confirmed for the first time that a horse's four legs are all off the ground simultaneously when they run. They also demonstrated that the common depiction of a racehorse in motion with front and back legs outstretched all at once was woefully inaccurate.
5. Wassily Kandinsky (Russia, 1866-1944)
Kandinsky was one of the first abstract painters. In the early 1900s he developed a style that focused primarily on color and form. He was also a professor and argued that art free of references to the physical world could be just as spiritual as any traditional scene.
LYRICALLY by WASSILY KANDINSKY
Photo by WikiArt
Kandinsky made several paintings and prints of horses with riders, which he used as a metaphor for moving beyond realism. His important 1911 painting Lyrically (often called Man On a Horse) may or may not depict a racehorse, though the rider’s crouched pose – popularized around the turn of the century – and the animal’s long stride are certainly suggestive of one.
6. Andy Warhol (United States, 1928-1987)
Warhol, the Pop art master, was not necessarily into the sport of horse racing but he was keenly interested in the associated glamour. He photographed four-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Bill Shoemaker in 1978 and created a silkscreen of the image for a portrait included in 1978’s Athlete Series.
Commissioned by the artist’s friend, California collector Richard Weisman, the series was reproduced in a variety of color schemes and also included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali, Chris Evert, Rod Gilbert, Dorothy Hamill, Jack Nicklaus, Pelé, O.J. Simpson and Tom Seaver. A few years later, in 1982, Warhol attended the Kentucky Derby and took snapshots of Gato Del Sol’s triumph from his grandstand box.
7. Isidore Jules Bonheur (France, 1827-1901)
Bonheur was a sculptor from a family of artists. His father was known for his drawings and his sister, Rosa Bonheur, was one of the most recognized women painters of the 19th century, also known for animals and nature scenes.
JOCKEY ON HORSE by ISIDORE JULES BONHEUR
Photo by the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Though he made work depicting many species of animal, Bonheur had the most success selling equine sculptures to English collectors. His sleek horses tended to be shown in relaxed moments, as opposed to the more typical conformation poses or moments of triumph.
8. Pierre “Peb” Bellocq (France, 1926- )
Peb is known primarily for humorous drawings of racing subjects. His caricatures capture the heart and personality of horses and humans, while his commentary can be withering or hysterical. The Frenchman immigrated to the United States in 1954 and began working as a cartoonist for the Morning Telegraph one year later. He grew up the son of a jockey and the grandson of a trainer, so even as opportunities arose as a political cartoonist Peb remained committed to the sport he loved.
SELF PORTRAIT by PEB
The hundreds of Daily Racing Form covers he illustrated were a hallmark of major racing events, reflecting and shaping public conversations surrounding the news of the day. His body of work serves as a chronicle of the American turf in the second half of the 20th century as insightful as most any written record.
Racing remains a popular subject for cartoonists and caricature artists – perhaps more so than any other sport – thanks in large part to the audience that Peb created for such work. Current artists like Mel Leonard and ABR’s own Jen Ferguson now carry on the overlooked yet rich tradition of cartooning that is unique to Thoroughbred racing among sports.
9. John Frederick Herring Sr. (England, 1795-1865)
Herring was among the more popular and prolific racehorse painters of the mid-18th century. Early in his career he was a tradesman, painting inn signs and insignias for the side of coaches. However, he had grown up fascinated by horses and began painting them in his spare time.
MEMNON WITH WILLIAM SCOTT UP by JOHN FREDERICK HERRING SR.
Photo by WikiMedia Commons
Before long his skill was recognized by nobles, who began commissioning him for portraits of their hunters and racehorses. As his reputation grew, many of his paintings were engraved for reproduction, including those of 33 winners of the St. Leger and 21 winners of the Epsom Derby.
10. Luis Cruz Azaceta (Cuba, 1942- )
The prolific Azaceta has spent much of his career melding the bright colors of his homeland, Cuba, with trends in abstract art in the United States, where he has lived and worked for more than 50 years. While his subject matters comment on critical issues of contemporary life, the scenes also draw from his everyday life.
Racing motifs regularly find their way into Azaceta’s paintings, especially racetrack ovals, which fit well with the rounded forms that permeate his work and also relate to the rhythms of life – endlessly repeating, but with new struggles and infinite variations. In his 2009 painting, Race, chess-piece horses of different colors are spread out around an inner turf course, which unfolds from the rest of the work’s abstract dreamscape.
RACE by LUIS CRUZ AZACETA
Photo courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery (New Orleans)
A resident of New Orleans for the past 20-plus years, Azaceta counts handicapping among his passions and is a regular presence on the second floor of the grandstand at the Fair Grounds. His work can be found in collections around the world, including leading American institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan, the Whitney and the Smithsonian.