Tuesday, October 20, 2009

09/10 Academic Decathlon French Revolution Art Selection #11 - The Start of the Race of the Riderless Horses

The Start of the Race of the Riderless Horses, 1820, Horace Vernet, Oil on canvas, 18 1/8 x 21 1/4 in. (46 x 54 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I just love this painting! It is full of drama and excitement (elements of Romanticism) - the horses are portrayed with power and glory. The artist, Horace Vernet, grew up in an aristocratic French family, the son of another famous painter, Carle Vernet. His career was jump started as a result of his heritage and financial means, and he sprang onto the art scene exhibiting his first artwork at the Salon when he was 23. From the beginning of his career he was known for his paintings of horses, images of soldiers and large scale battle scenes, which were widely popular. He was skilled at capturing battles as a journalist would, including details that might be left out by other artists. He was a very successful artist whose patrons included the kings and emperors of France as well as wealthy members of the upper-middle class.

This scene, the race of the riderless horses, was an event that took place in Rome alongside the annual Carnival celebration in Rome. Much like the running of the bulls in Paloma, Spain, the festival and the race attracted tourists from all over Europe. Barberi horses, a breed of small, fast horses from the coast of northern Africa, were the horses who ran the race. They would race over a mile without jockeys, spurred on by irritating bits of metal attached to their bodies as well as the setting off of firecrackers and loud, boisterous crowds. And, like the running of the bulls, once the horses let loose, people on the streets could be crushed by the raw power of the horses, so many spectators watched from the safety of balconies above the street level.

Vernet is showing the moment before the race has begun, when the grooms are trying to control the huge animals which are decorated with ribbons for identification purposes. The drama of being in such close quarters with such powerful animals is displayed in the center - a black horse has fallen on a groom and there is terror in his face as he realizes he could be trampled to death in a moment. Another groom, muscles rippling with effort, is trying to contain the wild beast. There is yet another groom in the background adding his strength to control the situation. We see spectators in the balconies that are hung with red drapery for the celebration. Some are not even interested in the scene below, but are looking off to some other happening in the distance.

The Romanticists loved to focus on the power and uncontrollable aspect of nature and the interest in horses was a favorite subject in their paintings. This particular scene was especially exciting: it showed a time when the power and fury of these magnificent beasts was set free and could also be seen as a symbol of freeing human spirits from the bondage of modern civilization.

Self-Portrait, Emile Jean Horace Vernet, 1835, Oil on canvas, 47 × 39 cm (18.50 × 15.35 in)

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