Beauty, Strength and Grace: Horses in Art
Horses are intertwined with human history, and the collection of the National Gallery of Canada provides an extensive record of their many roles. From prehistory to pets, horses have been there to run, work, fight, compete, play, or to be displayed for admiring human eyes. They were painted on cave walls in France as long as 30,000 years ago and have hardly broken their trot as a major source of artistic inspiration.
Their strength, endurance, versatility and beauty are all captured in the most widely-seen horses in the collection, the galloping herd by Saskatchewan artist Joe Fafard, that runs gracefully outside the Gallery's entrance. Originally laser-cut from steel, these silhouettes of prairie horses were created in 2017 in a new edition, executed in powder-coated aluminium to be able to live permanently outdoors.
Not all horses in the collection are as easily perceived. In the middle of the collage of images that is James Rosenquist’s massive Painting for the American Negro, one can catch a glimpse of a horse’s head. The work was painted in 1962–63, in the Pop Art age when abstraction and expressionism ruled, and when traditional roles of horses as farm equipment or a means of transportation had largely succumbed to technology. In the United States the battle over civil rights and racial injustice was at a pitch, and in the painting the artist addresses the contemporary politics of race and identity. Precisely what the horse head meant was unclear even to Rosenquist (as explained by the artist in an interview with curator Jan van der Marck and published in American Art in 2006). Rosenquist, who was white, also commented to the art critic Gene Swenson that around the time he was painting the work he had been to see Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art, and it may be that he was influenced by its own demonstrative horse head.
The art historian Melissa Mednicov wrote in Art Journal that Rosenquist’s painting was “highly ambivalent, even confused,” and the work of “a white artist whose attempted interventions in the dynamics of racism” actually “reinforced … the disenchantment and discrimination to which he was nominally opposed.”
One of the earliest depictions of a horse in the collection is in Sandro Botticelli's The Triumph Of Mordecai, from c. 1475. One of two panels portraying scenes from the story of Esther, it depicts Esther’s uncle Mordecai riding high up on a black steed, led by his vanquished enemy Haman.
Esther’s story — the Jewish queen of the Persian king Xerxes I, whom she convinced not to slaughter the Jews in his kingdom but instead to let them kill their enemies — was a popular subject in Florentine Renaissance painting. The Triumph of Mordecai is one of six panels decorating two marriage chests. It appeared on the right end of the groom’s chest, with Mordecai’s horse being led by his condemned enemy, the king's chief advisor. The horse both literally and figuratively raises its human master above his vanquished foe.
By date of completion, Botticelli’s horses are the oldest on display at the Gallery; but stylistically, the “oldest” – until recently on display – was painted only in 1926. A loan from the Glenbow Museum, War Scenes was painted on cotton muslin by the artist known as White Wolf, who was the oldest living warrior of the Kainai, an Alberta tribe of the Blackfoot Confederacy.
White Wolf’s figures and horses are portrayed against a flattened background, yet “the skilled artist has managed to create a feeling of movement and action even though the figures themselves are simple and static,” says Beth Carter, former curator of Indigenous studies at the Glenbow Museum. The painting was commissioned for the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park, and White Wolf took the opportunity to record the struggle of the Blackfoot to protect their lands, culture and freedom.
War horses are frequently portrayed, in battle or on parade, including in what may be the Gallery’s most famous battlefield painting, Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe, from 1770. While the English general lies dying on the field, surrounded by officers and allies, the fight between foreign empires rages in the background. Near the top left corner of the canvas, amid the cannon smoke and upraised dust, is a single white horse, its rider seeming to topple off in injury or in death. The horse and fated rider were not seen in West’s preliminary sketch (also in the Gallery’s collection) but were added in the finished painting. Although tiny and all but obscured by the chaos of battle, it is narrative depiction of great drama.
Horses were ubiquitous in paintings of early Canada, so essential were they to daily life. Cornelius Krieghoff’s White Horse Inn by Moonlight, painted in 1851, is a scene both remote and bustling. Faces and warm light are seen through the windows of the snow-covered inn surrounded by forest, while heavily-clad men tend to horses and a sled. Two horses are being led through the snow and others emerge from stalls beside the inn. The horses are the basis of both labour and transportation — the very ability for humans to survive in the wild lands — all conveyed by the artist’s fervour for detail.
Krieghoff’s approximately 1,800 paintings and drawings included hundreds or perhaps thousands of horses, and were not mere tools or even decorations. His horses — and other creatures that lived alongside humans — had personality and character, and they could be wilful, playful and even mischievous. Here that range of traits is seen in the horses’ stolid demeanour in rugged conditions, and in the small black-and-white dog that scampers about and seems to bark at the horses, who remain resolutely indifferent.
In contrast to Krieghoff’s teeming scene, Kathleen Moir Morris’s undated Waiting is calm, almost torpid. In the background a man hooks a horse to a sled, while in the foreground another horse, already attached, stands patiently, waiting to resume its role as the backbone of human life. Morris was a Montrealer and a member of the Beaver Hall group, and she had a deep affection for scenes of Quebec life, especially in winter and often with horses. The wall panel says this painting “oscillate(s) between festive and bright and melancholic and cold,” which amply describes winter for any Canadian, horse or human.
By contrast, on the painted walls in the Croscup Room it is the height of summer and the action is thrilling, with horses racing around a harbour. Other horses fill other roles on other walls, all painted in the front room of the Croscup house that once stood in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. The artist is now unknown, but the picturesque scenes are from the Maritimes and Europe, when horses remained a fundamental part of human work and pleasure on both sides of the Atlantic.
Painted around 1846, the Croscup murals were purchased by the Gallery 130 years later. Some 30,000 years after prehistoric artists drew in a cave, we are still putting horses on our walls.
Many of these works are currently on view at the National Gallery of Canada; for further details on individual paintings, see the Gallery's collection online. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.