European artists and storytellers had a rich tradition to draw on in depicting the sometimes-crucial relationship between humans and horses. Greek and Roman myth yielded such vivid horse-characters as the winged Pegasus, the man-eating Mares of Diomedes, and the horses who drive Apollo's sun-chariot across the sky. More recent Norse mythology, also, associated horses with nobility and power.
So it's no surprise that, at the dawn of English literature, horses already have an indelible place in the myths of King Arthur and his court. After all, the Celtic mythology of the British Isles is full of horses too - Kelpie the water-horse; Cuchulainn's horses Liath Macha and Dub Sainglend - and King Arthur, a character who may represent Celtic, German, Norse and other influences, travels in the royal style to which the hero-gods of all these mythologies are accustomed, accompanied by Hengroen and Llamrei. Each night of the Round Table, too, has his noble steed.
Working with this inheritance - the medieval literature of chivalry - the writers of the European Renaissance give us a series of immortal epics of knight-errantry. But these later stories often purport to give us the "secret history" of figures already renowned in medieval battle poetry, focusing on the inward life.
The horses of this literature, like their riders, can make mistakes. For example, there's Edmund Spenser's many Arthurian knights, riding their mighty but sometimes imperfect horses, fighting allegorical battles that represent spiritual and moral struggle; Ariosto's Orlando Furioso presents the real-life hero of Charlemagne's sixth-and-seventh-century court, already known from an earlier French epic, as a man driven mad by a (totally imagined) love. Most famous of all, we have Don Quixote, hero of his own wickedly parodic anti-epic, riding his brave steed (AKA malnourished hack) Rocinante through the anticlimactic ups and downs of a novel more concerned with the questions what is insanity? what is truth? than with fierce wars and brave deeds.
In later, post-European visual art, horses are associated not with godlike deeds of larger-than-life heroes but with the real, if still somewhat idealized, events of war. In the battle paintings of Albrecht Adam (1786-1862), the battles of the early-nineteenth-century Russian campaign - which Adam had actually experienced - come alive in a series of scenes, including a series of 83 paintings which Adam described as his "war diary." In such paintings as The Battle of Novarra (1858), horses are part of the real, and bloody, business of war.
George Stubbs (1724-1806), is also known for his paintings of horses, though he painted them not as participants in the rough-and-tumble of European politics but as one of nature's wonders. But his portraits are modern, too, in his scientific attention to the anatomy of horses; Stubbs had recourse to the quintessentially Enlightenment expedient of dissecting horses in order to understand how their bodies were put together.
He published a sketchbook, The Anatomy of the Horse, in 1766, while the accuracy of his earlier drawings - an advance over those of such earlier horse painters as James Seymour and John Wootton - drew him to the attention of the Duke of Richmond, who commissioned from him several large paintings. With such a royal welcome, Stubbs was able to make a good living from his art.
His most famous painting, also on commission (from the Marquess of Rockingham), is probably Whistlejacket, in which the titular horse is depicted against a plain background rather than as part of a scene - unlike earlier painters of horses, Stubbs seems to have felt that the horse was itself worth focusing attention on.
Artists such as Stubbs and Adam, among many others, have influenced a modern genre of painting - the works of the "horse painters," of which, well, the name says it all. Bucking the modern trend away from representational art - art that, you know, looks like stuff - these painters find an exciting subject matter in the 19th- and 20th-century emergence of contemporary Thoroughbred horse racing.
Martin Frank Stainforth (1866-1957), trained in the style of the Italian Old Masters, but after settling in Australia at the turn of the century, he began work on a series of equine portraits. One famous work is his painting of the 1912 Queen Elizabeth Stakes winner Trafalgar; he painted racehorses owned by many English nobility (including King George V) before moving to New York City in 1934, where he painted, most notably, the 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral. Fittingly, some of his work can be seen at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York.
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