Frankly, it’s not often that my two passions intersect in the classroom—horse racing and art history. However, this semester I’m teaching a course on Modern Art which begins with French Romanticism, and includes Impressionism, so I’ve had the opportunity to discuss several nineteenth century artists who addressed the “Sport of Kings” in their work.
Best known for his dramatic rendering of the cannibalistic survivors of a notorious shipwreck off the coast of Senegal in “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818), Théodore Géricault had a deep love of horses (probably severely tested when two riding accidents nearly killed him). As early as 1810, he was doing watercolors of English-bred race horses (right) which revealed their Arabian heritage and keen intelligence, notably visible in the manner in which this beast eyes up the viewer.
Yet, as a Romantic painter, the awesome power of nature was never far from his thoughts, thus his 1813-14 “Horse in the Storm” painting (left) in the National Gallery, London. For the Romantics, it wasn't just the moral boundaries of humanity that was of interest; nature too is beyond our control, so “conquering” the horse, in a small way, empowers we puny humans.
During an 1817 trip to Italy, Géricault witnessed the annual riderless horse race held on the Via del Corso in Rome during Carnival. His studies and paintings of this event depict powerfully muscular horses, highly-idealized, but consist with his monumental tendencies in form inspired by the works of Michelangelo and Caravaggio (right). It also appears inspired by antique examples, such as the horses on the Parthenon frieze. However, the tension and struggle evident between man and beast reveals the artist’s further knowledge of the ugly history of this race—at its beginnings in the 15th century, it was not horses but Jews that were forced to run like horses in the street, publically humiliated by Christians. As Albert Boime notes, during Napoleon’s reign, Jews were emancipated in the Papal States, but after the Restoration, Pope Pius VII reinstituted the Inquisition, and Jews were forced to finance the race prizes. Ever the social critic (and rabble-rouser), Géricault’s horse race becomes a commentary on societal ills and prejudice—the struggle between the civilized and the raw primitive.
After the notoriety he achieved with “The Raft of the Medusa,” Géricault spent time in England where he painted “The Epsom Derby” 1821 (below; Louvre, Paris) for the horse dealer (and his landlord) Adam Elmore. In a style more reminiscent of English painting, the gray eventual winner Gustavus and his sleek competitors are set against an ominous sky, sailing over the turf in a flying gallop. It is the animals, not the absent race viewers, who are the work’s focus.
Just as it did in the British Isles and America, horse racing flourished in France during the nineteenth century, with the national studbook (or Jockey Club) organized in 1833—and, of course, we owe the French a debt of gratitude for developing pari-mutuel wagering. A decade after the first race was run at Longchamp, artist Édouard Manet rendered an impressionist heads-on view of a race (below; Art Institute of Chicago, 1864), yet the fashionable race-goers are just as significant as the horses, a situation clearly articulated by Caspar Whitney in 1900:
“Horse-racing in France is to the haut monde in summer what opera is to them in winter. The excitement of a quick race, with its intervals for promenade and gossip, fits the French volatile temperament to a nicety; therefore the flat racing at Longchamps…attract[s] spectators in great numbers.”
Probably the best known French horse racing paintings of the nineteenth century were executed by Impressionist Edgar Degas who, inspired by Manet, rendered familiar scenes of contemporary masculine Parisian culture—subject matter that was contrary to the grand tradition of history painting, although it seems so innocuous today.
His innovations in composition were inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e prints, with cropped vistas and unusual angles. Most intriguing about his nearly-one hundred racing paintings, pastels and drawings is the pent-up tension and palatable excitement of the horses and riders, the fleeting sensation captured in a moment. They are simply spectacular in their abstraction.
Ironic, isn’t it, that these scenes for Degas represented the epitome of modern life, when the working man had enough free time and disposable income to enjoy a day at the races?
Albert Boime, Art in an Age of Counterrevolution, 1815-1848 (University of Chicago Press, 2004) pp. 127-130.
Rupert Christiansen, The Victorian Visitors: Culture Shock in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001) pp 36-37.
Caspar Whitney “Athletic Development in France” Outing, volume 36 (1900) pp. 178-181.
Also, Chapter 11 in Émile Zola’s 1880 novel Nana regales us with an account of a day at the races, specifically the Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamp—you can read it online here.