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George Stubbs (1724-1806) was sought after as a painter of horses, often shown with their proud owners.  His format is always horizontal, since a horse’s body is long.  To show it in its full glory you needed to portray it from the side, in its longest extension. In his paintings of horse and rider, the horse is more important than the rider, even if it’s the Marquess of Wocestershiresauce.

If the owner of the horse wanted to be shown as more important, however, the format had to be vertical.  Now the Marquess of Watever is shown in full verticality and his beloved horse…oh, wait, how can we get the horse in this picture?  Looks like we have to foreshorten the animal.  That means, the horse has to be shown either from the front or the back.  Well, we can’t have the horse’s hindquarters, the whatsit, poking out towards the viewer, so I guess it will have to be the head.

An example of a foreshortened horse is Joshua Reynolds’  portrait of Captain George K.H. Coussmaker.  The wall sign at the Met says, “Reynolds gave close attention to his portrait of George Kein Hayward Coussmaker, a lieutenant and captain in the first regiment of Foot Guards.  No fewer than twenty-one appointments—and at least two more for the sitter’s horse—are recorded between February 9 and April 16, 1782.  The composition is complex and the whole vigorously painted.”  Complex, indeed.  The  horse’s body is forced into a semi-circle, stretching its head to an anatomically unbelievable length. To show that the head is connected to a horse, Reynolds paints in some hooves,  pointing daintily like a ballerina’s toes.  A tour de force, all for the sake of framing the captain in an elegant arch. He must have been a vain, humorless man.

We get an even more daringly foreshortened horse in Henry Raeburn’s portrait of George Harley Drummond. This horse—and I wish we knew the horse’s name—is shown in complete indifference to the proceedings.  She grazes nonchalantly while the aristocrat is posing for his portrait.  Aside from the anthropomorphizing of the animal, the artist has solved the foreshortening challenge in an ingenious, witty and possibly satirical way.  Really, your lordship, the horse’s hindquarters?!

One wonders if the expression “horse’s ass” was in circulation in Scotland in the early eighteen hundreds.  Perhaps the man in the fine boots had a sense of humor—after all, he must have approved the composition—and hung it in his great entrance hall where he positioned himself to greet his neighboring land owners as they arrived for his party, letting everybody know what he really thought of them.

The Met, once again, stays away from the possibility of satire: “The foreshortened view of the grazing bay horse is the most complex part of the composition, though not the most important.  It is curious, therefore, that the animal’s hindquarters should so prominently displayed.”

Exquisitely painted hindquarters, yes.  But the Met is prudishly polite: the horse’s ass is  obviously the most important part of the painting!

Happy April Fools Day to All!

George Stubbs | The Marquess of Rockingham’s ‘Scrub’, 1762

Joshua Reynold (1723-1792).  Captain George K.H. Coussmaker

Henry Raeburn (1756-1823). George Harley Drummond.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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Nov2014
Yes, it’s all rectangles and squares. What an interesting challenge! Wherever you look, it’s all 90° and you think this should look stable and fixed. Not so. It’s all motion and speed. How do you make a painting consisting of right angles so lively?! Try to look away. Gotcha!

Our visual apparatus evolved to detect motion. Frogs can only see what moves. If you don’t want to be associated with frogs in your family tree, try to remember what it’s like to sit in a train while reading. It’s hard, because your eyes are attracted to the blur and motion at the window. Maybe a painting that simulates the effect of motion holds our attention for the same reason. But this painting does not illustrate motion.
Let’s look at an illustration of motion.

HorsesBeachHere we have a specific instance, a narrative of motion. Horses and riders on a beach can evoke the memory of a beach, the smell of the ocean, the energy of young men and the power of horses. Notice that all these are specific memories and as such they’re limited and limiting.
In the painting,  our experience is deeper. Without a narrative as a hook and employing a most restrained composition, it moves us to introspect on how perception itself works.  We have to ask how this is possible.  And that’s endlessly fascinating.
Painting by Maria Palacios, 30×40. Oil on canvas.
All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.
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http://katherinehilden.wordpress.com
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