War Horse and … the Horse in Art

Posted by on 22 Dec 2012 in Blog, Inspiration, My life | 4 comments

War Horse and … the Horse in Art




I was recently in Ontario visiting my sister Andrea. My first day there, we had to take Barrington, a BIG beautiful horse, to the vet to have his leg checked out. It was fascinating to see the vets and assistant look him over, examining him by ultra sound and 3-D xray (so cool!).


I tell you this because later that night, Andrea treated us to an evening out at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto to see the production of War Horse. Seeing, smelling, watching, experiencing a large horse so closely during the day absolutely prepared me for my shift in belief later on, that indeed, these horse ‘puppets’ were living, breathing creatures.


First, a look at Barrington:

BARRINGTON being checked over by the vet, Andrea standing by

BARRINGTON being x-rayed. As I look at this photo, it reminds me of the puppeteers working Joey, the War Horse as you’ll see later

BEAUTIFUL Barrington





And then there’s War Horse. The play (based on the book War Horse by Michael Morpurgo) is about Joey, a horse that comes into farm boy Albert’s life as a foal. The horse is eventually sold by Albert’s father to the British Cavalry and the story tells of Joey’s life in the time of World War I and Albert’s quest to be reconnected with his beloved companion. The production is magnificent with music, dialogue, acting, and theatre design all making for a moving and transporting evening. But what’s most incredible are the puppets, these incredible horses and handlers that make you believe you are watching real horses that twitch their ears, shiver their skin, snort and whinny, crane their necks, flick their tails, eat food from a bucket, nuzzle their owners, gallop full speed into battle with their riders astride. Life is breathed into these inanimate objects and we believe. So much so that when a horse dies and the three puppeteers remove themselves as one flowing unit, we feel the soul has left the body of the horse and it truly is no longer alive. This play is definitely worth seeing!!! You can book tickets by clicking here. It plays in Toronto until 6 Jan 2013.


JOEY and Albert in the play, War Horse. One of the three puppeteers that bring Joey to life is on the left working the head, the other two – heart and hind- are beneath the horse.

JOEY and Topthorn head into battle in the play War Horse


TOPTHORN dies in the production of War Horse


If you are interested in seeing and knowing more, here are some informative and fascinating videos – just click on the highlighted words. This one shows clips from the Toronto production – it gives you a feel for the play while this one interviews the puppeteers. You’ll see a real horse and Joey interact in this one as well as see a small bit about the building of the puppets. (I can hardly use the word ‘puppet’ for these enormous creations!) And this video is a TEDTalks with the two creators, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring Puppet Company who talk about the evolution of Joey.





Seeing these puppets made me think of Heather Jansch’s driftwood horses. Take a look at her website for more of her fabulous work!


HEATHER JANSCH, Resolute and Young Lord, driftwood


Then I started to think about the depiction of horses in paintings with the work of Degas, Stubbs, Uccello, Marc, and Remington immediately coming to mind. To satisfy my curiosity, I went on the search for images and so I share a few with you.


HORSE from the Lascaux caves. One of the earliest images of a horse – probably over 17,000 years old!!!


PAOLO UCCELLO, The Battle of San Romano, c. 1438–1440. Egg tempera with walnut oil and linseed oil on poplar. 181.6 x 320 cm, Uffizi. I am always in awe of the design created by Uccello (1397-1475) in his work. There is such a monumentality about this painting

ANDREA MANTEGNA, Detail of the frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua – The west Wall “The Meeting”, 1471-74. To see more of these frescoes, click here. Mantagna (1431-1506) is not an artist you hear about with the big boys but I always am excited to see his work. This horse portrays such grandeur.


LEONARDO DA VINCI, Study of horse from Leonardo’s journals, c1490, silverpoint on prepared paper, 9.84 x 7.36 in, Royal Library, Windsor Castle. Evidently, da Vinci’s fascination with the world included horses.

ANTHONY VAN DYCK, Charles I with M. de St Antoine, 1633, The Royal Collection. Compared to the solidity and still quality of the renaissance horses above, this horse shows great movement and warmth of flesh, part of the baroque influence. Van Dyck (1599-1641) was a flemish artist who eventually became a leading painter in England


GEORGE STUBBS, The Milbanke and Melbourne Families, o:c, 97.2 x 147.3 cm, c.1769, National Gallery. Stubbs (1724 – 1806), had a passion for anatomy from his childhood and in 1756 be began dissecting horses. He published the book, The Anatomy of the Horse in 1766.

FREDERICK HERRING SR (1795-1865), Negotiator-A Bay Horse in a Landscape, 1826. That’s some shiny coat! Does the head of this horse look too small?


THEODORE GERICAULT (1791-1824), The Charging Chasseur, c 1812, 137 × 105 in, Louvre. Talk about a horse in action!


ROSA BONHEUR (1822-1899), The Horse Fair, 8 x 16 ft, 1853-1855, Metropolitan Museum of Art. This painting is HUGE!!!! Can you imagine being in its presence?? I can hear the pounding of the horses’s hooves!


EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917), Before the Race, c1882-1884, oil on panel, 10 3/8 x 13 3/4 in, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Compared to Bonheur’s painting above, this one is tiny! Degas paints in so little and yet expresses the movement and agitation of the horses so well.


FREDERIC REMINGTON (1861-1909) , Standing Horse. I don’t have any further info on this piece but I thought it was such a beautiful depiction of a horse that I had to include it. It also reminded me of the Cavalry in War Horse. Remington did hundreds of paintings and sculptures of horses and really, his life was pretty short! It was difficult to choose which image of Remington’s to include. To see more of his work, click here.


TOULOUSE LAUTREC (1864-1926), At the Circus Fernando, oil on canvas, 1887-88, Art Institute of Chicago. I love this view of the horse! (Reminds me of Barrington’s hind view above.)


FRANZ MARC (1880–1916), Blue Horse, oil on canvas, 1911, 112.5 x 84.5 cm,Staedtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Germany. It was tricky to decide which of Marc’s horse paintings to include but as this one reminds me of Joey as a foal in War Horse, it was the chosen one. For more of Marc’s horse paintings, click here.


Whew, and that’s just scratching the surface. So many different interpretations but all celebrate the magnificence of the horse. Horses as subjects in art is hugely popular, so much so there is actually a magazine devoted to it – Horses in Art!


I have one more example, appropriate for the season:


CM RUSSELL (1864-1926), Christmas card greeting. Unfortunately I don’t know the date this was done. Love the sentiment. Can you make out what it says?


Do you have any favourite horse paintings you’d like to share? It certainly is a HUGE topic!!


I’m glad you’re here with me and the world didn’t end today.

Happy Winter Solstice – Bring on the LIGHT!!!


~ Gail