What would you prefer: a great portrait of a horse, or a great portrait of a car? Andrew Jones, founder of the eponymous Los Angeles auction house, suggests that 90 percent of people would choose the horse, which may seem surprising to some.
More than 100 years have passed since the automobile displaced the horse as our main form of transportation. Admittedly, there are some truly spectacular cars out there. But a painted portrait of a car? Even a magnificently rendered image of a Murphy-bodied Duesenberg, or a Bugatti Type 55? No. The horse wins, and by far more than a nose. But why?
Well, the mammal has a long head start. Horses have appeared in art pretty much since human beings began creating images as art. The walls of the caves at Lascaux, France, are famously adorned with images of galloping equines rendered in charcoal and ocher. According to current scholarship, the cave paintings are about 17,000 years old. Horses star in other pivotal works of art. Two of the three paintings in Paolo Uccello’s 15th-century trio of tempera-on-wood panels dubbed the Battle of San Romano, showing the artist’s understanding of linear perspective, place white horses front and center. Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 images of Sallie Gardner galloping with a rider identified as “G. Domm” on her back literally changed the way horses are portrayed. The photographs proved that at some point, however brief, all four of a horse’s hooves leave the ground when it runs.
But the biggest difference is an insurmountable one: cars don’t have personalities, but horses do. Great portrait artists don’t just capture the facts of the sitter, they also capture the intangibles known only to those who love them best, and fix them to the canvas for all to see. In the case of equine portraits, the sitter just happens to be a horse.
“Sitter” also happens to be a contradictory term in this context, as the horses are never shown sitting. Many picture the subject in profile, standing perfectly still, which presents the viewer with another contradiction. We seem to love horses best when they’re moving; Uccello, Muybridge, and the Lascaux artists agree on that. But painting a horse that’s standing still allows us to appreciate the horse at rest, and to admire the skill of the portraitist. “If you’ll Google paintings of horses, you’ll be shocked at how many don’t look like a horse should,” Jones said.
Sarah Campbell Drury, vice president of Fine and Decorative Arts at Case Antiques Auctions & Appraisals in Knoxville, Tennessee, points out that the noted equestrian artist Henry Stull “credited part of his success to actually having studied horse anatomy at veterinary school.”
Commissioning a painted portrait is expensive; horse portraits, in and of themselves, are luxury goods, not unlike a Patek Philippe chronograph or a Ferrari 599 Manual. Horse portraits represent the fact that decades or centuries ago, someone was rich enough to pay an artist to immortalize a favorite horse. “There is the emotional connection and desire to have a portrait as a remembrance and keepsake. But we must also remember that many horses were in fact the livelihoods of their owners. They were raced and bred for large sums of money,” Campbell Drury says. “They were extremely important financial assets. So equine portraits could be used almost as marketing or promotional materials to represent this asset in situations where the horse itself could not be present, not to mention as status symbols.”
British demand for these images during the 18th- and 19th centuries was strong enough to sustain dedicated specialists. “During the period when equine portraiture was at its peak, it was common for the wealthiest of racehorse owners to commission portraits of their most important animals, allowing a handful of artists to earn a living solely from those types of picture,” says Patricia Durdikova, an associate in the Paintings department at Cheffins auction house in Cambridge, England. “Portraits of the horses which defined the development of British horse racing, known as the Foundation Sires, are as sought after in the current market as they were at the time of painting.”
In September 2015, Cheffins offered a set of 12 equine portrait prints based on the work of British artist Thomas Spencer, one of the few who made his living by depicting elite horses. He portrayed the animals in profile, attended by riders and grooms and surrounded by text that recounted their accomplishments. Estimated at £1,000 to £2,000, or about $1,300 to $2,700, the mid-18th-century group sold for £4,600, or roughly $6,300.
Horse portraits become more interesting to collectors with each proven fact they can claim. An anonymous artist painting of an anonymous horse in a nondescript field can sell well if it’s competently rendered. If we know the name of the artist, that’s good; if we know the name of the horse, that’s equally good, and sometimes better. If the horse has a confirmed racing history, better still. If human beings appear with the horse, collectors prefer to know who they are and why they’re there. If the backdrop contains details that support and confirm what we know about the horse, e.g., buildings belonging to specific horse farms, or a glimpse of the country house of its owner in the distance, that’s beneficial, too.
Most desirable of all, obviously, is a portrait of a horse whose name appears in the bloodlines of winners of the Kentucky Derby and other high-stakes races. A painting that sold at Case in January 2018 featured just such an animal. The work depicted the stallion Bonnie Scotland with chief groom Robert “Uncle Bob” Green. The horse’s descendants include Man-O-War, Sea Biscuit, Secretariat, and several other immortal champions.
The 1879 painting had even more going for it. Robert Green is outstanding in his own right. He was born into slavery and, after gaining his freedom through Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, rose to become the highest-paid employee of Bonnie Scotland’s home farm. The work was painted by Herbert Kittredge, who distinguished himself as a master of equestrian art before dying at the shockingly young age of 28. The painting sold at the top of its estimate range for $40,000 to Belle Meade Plantation, the Nashville farm where Bonnie Scotland lived and Green worked.
Drury acknowledges that the 1879 Kittredge painting was something of a unicorn. A horse portrait with a wealth of information behind it is, in her words, “pretty rare.” Most collectors must make do with less. However, when asked how the painting would perform if it were re-consigned to Case today, Drury replied, “Actually, about the same. The market for equestrian portraits seems to be fairly stable – pardon the pun.”
Jones says horse portraits continue to hold our attention because they give us something we need. “Horses in motion, horses standing still, it’s a very peaceful form of art,” he says. “Even before COVID-19, it was a lovely thing to hang on a wall.”