Choose a language
Use Arthive in the language you prefer
Sign up
Create an account
Register to use Arthive functionality to the maximum

The horse as a symbolic image in art

Power and perfection

Strength, swiftness, majestic beauty, dedication and at the same time — sensitivity and vulnerability… What an amazing creature! Horses are one of the first objects of fine art, depicted in cave paintings, and used in numerous sculptures. Horses have been considered sacred animals from ancient times. They are associated with fertility and connected with omens, sorcerers and pagan deities. Many people drew inspiration from the external beauty of these animals, but they also felt something else — the element of freedom hidden under the mane.

Painting horses at full tilt!
For the inhabitants of Central Europe, the images of wild animals (horses, bears, bulls) as objects of hunting had a magical meaning. This is evidenced by the drawings created 15−20 thousand years ago, found in deep caves (Niaux in The Midi-Pyrénées, Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, Lascaux in France, Tito Bustillo in Spain).

In the Renaissance, the biblical story about the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in which the four coat colours of horses have a special meaning, became of particular significance. One of the most popular illustrations on this subject was created by Albrecht Dürer. A menacing pathos creeps from his woodcut The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Death, Famine, Pestilence and War are furiously roaming the land and destroying everything in their way.

These noble animals symbolized wealth, power, and were an important part of life of not only European, but also Eastern peoples. The heavenly horses, or "eight horses," personifying heaven, fire, "Yang", south, speed, perseverance, and good omen were revered in ancient China.

A royal privilege!

The tradition of painting the so-called "Equestrian portraits" has deep roots in Europe, dating back to the times of the Roman Empire
Empire (fr. empire – imperial) is the style of the late classicism in architecture, applied art and painting. It was popular during the first three decades of the 19th century.
It is characterized by the craving for monumentality and greatness: so that it immediately becomes clear to everyone that the emperor’s power is almost limitless! The Empire style arose in France during the reign of Napoleon, later it was replaced by the eclectic art movements currents and then itfound its revival in ... the Soviet Union. Read more
. We can say a lot about horses on such canvases being full participants in the subject; personalities, with their own strength, rage, and nobility, emphasizing and accentuating the characteristic of a person depicted in the portrait. Any wealthy person could commission an artist to create a portrait, but fortune alone wasn’t enough to have an equestrian portrait painted: it was also necessary to have a very notable origin.
Equestrian portraits of the royalty were often created by Anthony van Dyck, Diego Velázquez and others.
However, the genre of equestrian portrait was not popular in Russia in the 18th century. In 1743, Georg Christoph Grooth created his Equestrian Portrait of the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna with a Little Negro Footboy. Elizabeth Petrovna sits on a horse mannishly, with a navy seen in the bay… And finally, a little footboy, ready to bow down at her feet and a magnificent, incredibly expensive Spanish horse.

The viewers see not just the reigning person, but the empress of the powerful state, the autocratrix. It should be noted that it is a ceremonial portrait, designed to function as a kind of "propaganda poster." At the time of the painting’s creation, Elizabeth had been ruling for only two years. The artist’s task was to maximally glorify the empress, and the genre of the equestrian portrait suited it best.

The triumph of perfection and freedom of the spirit

A horse has always been an indicator of its owner’s wealth and power. This animal is a hero of military battles and sport competitions. The image of a horse on canvas is intended to tell the viewer about the class status, occupation, even the success of the portrayed person, and sometimes it could be… an attribute of fashion. As people probably like to quote Heine in such cases: "Different century — different horses…"
In the era of romanticism, this graceful freedom-loving creature was popular among painters, and the horse for them was part of a wild, free nature. European artists of the 18th-19th centuries created a lot of memorable images of trotters.
English painter George Stubbs (1724−1806) was one of the first artists who devoted his art to animals, especially racehorses, and became the founder of the "hippos" (from Greek — horse) genre. In the middle of the 18th century, equestrian sport began to flourish in England and there appeared numerous orders from horse owners for images of their favourites. Perhaps no artist spent so much time carefully studying the anatomy of these animals, as Stubbs did. He created numerous detailed sketches, painted portraits of horses-champions and mares with their foals.

The most famous of such portraits is that of the stallion Whistlejacket, which even attacked Stubbs during a session. The horse is depicted rearing up, which symbolizes hardly tamed ferocity, that can be controlled neither by the rider nor by the gag-bit. The animalist also wanted to convey a sense of perfect admiration for nature, inspiring awe.

Horses were very popular among the Romantic painters of the 19th century. The rider was always a hero, leading his troops to victory, and if he was killed, his faithful horse would give him a farewell bow.

French painter and graphic artist Théodore Géricault (1791−1824) also liked to depict horses as realistically and accurately as possible, which is confirmed by such canvases as The Charging Chasseur, or An Officer of the Imperial Horse Guards Charging and Derby at Epsom. The artist was a passionate rider, and this interest was disastrous: an injury caused by a fall from a horse precipitated Géricault's death.

The indomitable energy of this animal won over another Frenchman, Eugène Delacroix (1798−1864). While visiting Morocco with a government mission, he made hundreds of sketches, and further impressions from that journey became his inexhaustible source of inspiration. Delacroix, above all, appreciated the horses' sense of freedom. His hippology is soaked with the revolutionary spirit, which was cautiously accepted in the French establishment. Edgar Degas (1834−1917) also got into the equestrian sport. However, he painted not from nature, like his "brothers in brushes" did, but sitting in a workshop and recalling what he had seen.

Degas believed that only that which left the most vivid impression was worth being portrayed. That is why his nature is not bound by immobility. The painter created many pencil drawings and sketches, as well as a number of large canvases on the same subject, the most significant of which are The False Start, Race Horses in front of the Stands, Jockeys in the Rain, Before the Race, The Training.

The 3rd-century BC tomb complex of Qin Shihuangdi, the First Emperor of a unified China, contains 600 terracotta sculptures of horses with many chariots and weapons along with 8,099 full-size statues of warriors.

At full gallop – from the legend

The Red Horse in Slavic tradition

Since ancient times, the image of a horse in Russian art has had multiple meanings. In Slavic mythology, this animal was people’s counsellor and saviour, a seer. It was also a "horse-destiny", each step of which symbolized a lot. It is in line with this tradition that Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878−1939) created his painting Bathing of the Red Horse. It is believed that the horse was originally bay (red), and that the master changed its colour, having seen the Novgorod icons and being impressed with their bright colours. Back then, in 1912, the collection and clearing of icons experienced their heyday.
Horses are important companions of people, and the legends and myths of the ancient Greeks perfectly illustrate this. In the archaic period, the ancient Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, was represented as a horse, and the winged Pegasus has been inspiring artists for centuries. Basically, a horse was a favourite object of images in ancient art. In the most general sense, a horse is a symbol of male power, and, for example, the Centaur in this respect symbolizes coarse, unbridled passion.
The masterpieces of the distant past demonstrate all these precisely symbolic traits of the animals, also showing "qualities in motion" along with grace and harmony of proportions.

Contemporary metaphors

Contemporary Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan (born 1960) interprets the image of a horse in his own way. Being a contemporary provocateur, he usually uses stuffed animals. His installation The Ballad of Trotsky was auctioned at Sotheby’s New York for $2.1 million. The work mourns the death of Trotsky and, more importantly, the collapse of his ideals.

In the words of the author himself, his stuffed horse, suspended from a ceiling, represents the state of uncertainty, for "in a state where it cannot exercise force, it express energy." A strong animal is literally stuck between two worlds in a completely helpless position! Perhaps, the artist believes that this absurd composition symbolizes the contradiction between the purpose and the will of circumstances (a hint at Trotsky’s ideals).

Today, the theme of horses remains relevant: nowadays, their images bear a symbolism of the rapid, irrevocable flight of time.

And from the very beginning, the painting caused numerous disputes, in which it was invariably mentioned that such horses didn’t exist. However, the artist claimed that he took over this colour from ancient Russian icon painters: for example, in the icons The Miracle of the Archangel Michael the horse is depicted completely red.

The bronze Quadriga on St. Marks Basilica in Venice is widely regarded as one of the best ancient statues of horses (the 3rd or 4th century B.C.). This is the only surviving example of a multi-figured antique sculpture — cavalry, and indeed the Greek ideal of perfection. The creation of the quadriga is attributed to Lysippos himself. The Greek sculptor, one of the three most famous Greek sculptors of the era, knew horses very well — his sculptures that can be seen today near Parthenon in Athens confirm his talent.

I’ve built myself a monument...

The tradition of depicting horsemen, established in antiquity, continued in Christian art in the images of St. George, Demetrius of Thessaloniki, Maurice, Martinus Turonensis, Theodore Stratelates, Theodore of Amasea.
However, in the Middle Ages, the images of horses in art lost their popularity, since many painters and sculptors paid special attention to religious themes in their works. Still, a different, "secular" line, based on the same ancient prototypes, created in the European art the genre of equestrian monuments, the interest to which awoke in the 14th century, in the Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more

A striking example of the equestrian statue of the new time is the monument of the condottieri Erasmo of Narni (1447−1453), better known as "Gattamelata". The sculpture, created by Donatello and located in Padua, was fundamentally different from the previous models. In this work, the master glorified the individual merits of a person not connected with either the class privileges or hereditary nobility (Erasmo was the son of a baker). Donatello introduced the most consistent embodiment of the ideal of a strong man who literally rode high!

Here is one of Leonardo da Vinci's works, The Battle of Anghiari, Paul Rubens’s copy. When creating this masterpiece, Leonardo da Vinci painted more than a hundred drafts and sketches! He carefully studied the animals, observed and sketched their movements for a long time.
Well, the horse is indeed an important figure! And of course, if there is a horse — there is a cavalry.

The Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Great many Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
masters were extremely good at painting horses. This animal is present in the works of such great painters as Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, Antonio Pisanello, Paolo Uccello and Andrea Mantegna. In their creations, horses "play" the main role in battle and religious scenes, and the image of a horse already had a different meaning. The horse became not only a warrior and a symbol of power, which emphasized the power of man, but also the centre of the whole composition. Therefore, the artists and viewers paid much more attention to these animal than in the Middle Ages. Every detail was meticulously drawn, every muscle seemed to be endowed with emotions.
In the 19th century, the desire of Russian artists and sculptors to convey the energy of movement of these beautiful animals was a response to the mood of the era, a reflection of the desire for freedom, heroism, and exoticism. The popularity of this subject was accompanied by the characteristic works of Nikolai Sverchkov (1817−1898) and Peter Clodt (1805−1867), who often used horses in their works. Besides, the motif "with hoofbeat" was equally aristocratic and democratic. At that time, entire portrait galleries began to appear at the homes of bureaucrats and nobles, containing genre works with scenes from the lives of horses and their families, in which idealization and naturalism were combined. This attitude to animals was clearly reflected in Clodt’s project The Horse Tamers. The first two groups of equestrian sculptures were installed on the Anichkov Bridge (Saint Petersburg) in 1841, the next ones — in 1851. All four horse groups are lined up in a single logical sequence, the essence of which is accurately reflected in the title. Each sculpture is a new stage in the struggle of man with the elements of nature and victory over them.