No other animal has inspired the creative mind of man as much as the horse. Evidence of this can be found in the artistic output of the numerous civilisations and cultures in which it has appeared since prehistoric times. Stone Age cave drawings, Iron Age hill figures, Assyrian reliefs, Greek bronzes, and Chinese terracotta statues contribute visually to our understanding of the relationship between man and horse. Ever since its domestication over 6,000 years ago the horse has influenced the course of human history, being a fundamental component of travel, agriculture, war, sport and social aspiration. The significance of this partnership is at the heart of the horse’s place in art. From the first recorded drawings through to the present day it remains the most frequently depicted animal.
This selection of nine Old Master drawings from the Christ Church collection show how sixteenth and seventeenth century artists studied and portrayed the horse. In Renaissance and Baroque art the horse nearly always acted as an accompaniment to human action. Two drawings, one by Giovanni Ambrogio Figino (1548-1608) and the other by Palma Giovane (1548-1628), show studies for ideas relating to larger compositions. In the instance of the drawing by Palma Giovane it was a study for a battle scene. It was not until the time of George Stubbs (1724-1806) that the concept of horse portraiture was developed and the horse was depicted standing alone. Usually the animal appeared in close proximity to its owner. Kings, heroes and saints were frequently depicted riding upon horses, this enhanced the rider visually and symbolised wealth, power and prestige. Nevertheless, for all its suggestion of power and wealth, the horse was a practical animal, being an important component of warfare, hunting, agriculture and trade.
A horse’s beauty lies in the harmony of its form and the balance of its movement. It is its strength, easy motion, energy and speed that prompt the imagination and have fascinated artists throughout history. As a close companion to man, the horse has come to embody numerous human ideals such as freedom, loyalty and courage. An interesting example for that is the drawing by Taddeo Zuccaro (1529 - 1566) of Alexander the Great and his legendary horse Bucephalus. Two further drawings in this exhibition, Jacopo Ligozzi’s (1547-1627) St Francis and Abraham Bloemaert’s (1566 - 1651) St Martin, depict the relationship between horse and rider in a religious setting. In these drawings the horse signifies the wealth the two saints will have to sacrifice on their conversion to Christianity. Choosing to depict these episodes of the saints’ lives allowed the artists to show the splendour of the horse, while at the same time they portray the fundamental principle of humbleness and charity.
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