Written by Tim Rosenberger
Wednesday, 23 October 2013 00:00
With the use of cars, buses and other modes of transportation, horses are not as part of our daily lives as they used to be. Once upon a time, however, horses did more than get us from place to place; they actually helped to form our perception of a true leader.
This was the subject of a recent talk by Ingrid Cartwright, assistant professor of art history at Western Kentucky University. More specifically it was a presentation focusing on equestrian art, the art of horses, and its role in representing leadership. The speech took place on Oct. 10 for an event hosted by the Fine Arts Society of Peoria.
The horse’s role in leadership first flourished with emperors of ancient Greece and especially ancient Rome, where it picked up as a representation of governess and leadership. It eventually spread to Spain, England, France and the Northern Netherlands.
“Today, we think of animals as companions,” Cartwright said. “For these emperors and kings and nobles it was an emblem of control and how they governed.”
Cartwright’s speech mainly concentrated on paintings of the Renaissance, the 1500s, and the 1600s, during which times equestrian art enjoyed a golden age.
Many famous Baroque artists from the 17th century such as Rubens, van Dyck and Velazquez got their names from painting leaders of the time on horseback. These leaders strived to carry themselves as capable and kind, Cartwright said.
Leaders who got themselves painted on horseback from around that period include Charles I and II of England, Phillip IV of Spain, Louis XIII of France, and some rulers in the Northern Netherlands.
The flourishing of equestrian art at that time was due to a multitude of factors, Cartwright said. The global exploration that was so important back then, made exotic animals from around the world a real currency.
“[There was also] a new scientific way of looking at the world,” Cartwright said. “Not only because they were seeing mammals from around world but because there were real changes in science and development of things like the microscope and interest in new systems of classification in biology. They started breeding horses much more at this time with an interest in knowing different horse breeds and breading finer specimens. Horses were exchanged as diplomatic gestures between kings.”
A change of warfare was occurring, as well. There was a transition from the then current model of a warrior king in medieval periods to a cultivated gentleman king. This type of leader trained himself in certain fine arts and ruled with a benevolent and courtly hand.
Equestrian art was not only a popular art form in Europe. It also became quite common in early American art, with many of our first leaders such as George Washington and Andrew Jackson being shown in the same poses as some European kings on horseback.
“It sounds like it should be the opposite,” Cartwright said. “Our earliest founders would want to depict themselves differently, but they were really emulating that idea of a benevolent ruler, somebody who is trained in and rode their horse with as much tact and respect as the way they would govern their people.”
The art form saw a drastic decline after the Industrial Revolution.
“It seems to me, to be a change of mindset from thinking symbolically or allegorically to one that is almost more focused on the future [and] on technology and not looking back to the earlier presidents,” Cartwright said. “We can’t imagine having our [current] president shown in a painting on horseback. We just wouldn’t get it today.”
The last major leader, that Cartwright can think of, who was painted on horseback in order to portray good leadership was Napoleon, who likened himself to a Roman emperor, around the turn of the 19th century.
For those who may be a fan of such art, there is thankfully a newer subfield that has been gaining more and more steam the past five to ten years called animal studies. It involves people taking interdisciplinary studies of animals of the humanities, where students look at how animals are depicted throughout history. Cartwright equates it to looking at history through a Marxist or Feminist perspective.
Cartwright continues to find interest in the topic, and she hopes the subject of equestrian art is taught more in schools.
“It is very much associated with an idea of empire, of a leader who controls not just one country but [has] control of broad areas, and I think our notion of empire is altered dramatically,” Cartwright said. “We tend to look upon these as vestiges of another era [and] of another mindset because one, technology has simply evolved. It simply seems anachronistic, but two, they really carry that from a very public image [of] an ideal of empire.”
Last Updated on Tuesday, 22 October 2013 14:10