BBC Culture

Ten great horses from art history for Chinese New Year

About the author

Jason Farago is an art critic and columnist who regularly contributes to the Guardian, the New Yorker, and the New Republic. After many years in London, Jason now lives once again in his hometown of New York.

  • Han Gan, Night-Shining White (c. 750)

    One of the finest painters of the Tang Dynasty, Han Gan regularly visited the stables of the imperial court to observe the intricacies of equine movement and musculature. In his most powerful work he depicts Night-Shining White, a favourite horse of the Chinese emperor Xuanzong, rearing up on his hind legs and bursting with energy. Note the dozens of seals on the page – marks left by the many collectors and connoisseurs who owned or viewed this scroll over the centuries.

  • Albrecht Dürer, Knight, Death and the Devil (1513)

    A deeply Gothic image by the greatest of all printmakers, Dürer’s copper engraving portrays a valiant Christian knight riding past the snake-haired personification of Death on one side, and a porky devil on the other. The knight’s lustrous steed is as noble as he is, while Death’s horse is ungroomed and mangy, his head dragging near the ground.

  • Guillaume Coustou, The Marly Horses (1739-45)

    Two grandiose statues of Carrara marble, commissioned by Louis XIV and now in the Louvre, riff on the colossal antiquarian statues of horse tamers on the Quirinal Hill in Rome. Unlike earlier artists, Coustou dispensed of any mythological or allegorical allusions, presenting the wild horses and the struggling tamers as striking assemblages of muscles and flesh.

  • George Stubbs, Whistlejacket (1762)

    The greatest and most exacting of all equine painters, Stubbs taught himself to depict the anatomy of horses by drawing the corpses of animals he killed and dissected. Whistlejacket himself faced no such fate, happily−he was a champion racehorse, and in this giant and stark painting Stubbs gives him the solemnity and scale usually reserved for a king.

  • Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800)

    You wouldn’t guess, from his reverential paintings of the man soon to become France’s first emperor, that just a few years previously David was a fierce Jacobin who voted for the execution of Louis XVI and did jail time after the Reign of Terror. Bonaparte himself demanded a portrait showing him as “calm on a fiery horse,” and David delivered: the steed seems almost uncontrollable, but the first consul rides on to victory unperturbed.

  • Édouard Manet, The Races at Longchamp (1866)

    His compatriot Edgar Degas may have painted more horse races, but in Manet’s frank, modern depiction of a day at the track in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne he captures the rise of a new class: the leisure-loving bourgeoisie. Manet places the viewer right at the finish line, with the horses charging towards us, blurring together in a cloud of beige and brown.

  • Eadweard Muybridge, Horse in Motion (1878)

    A pioneer of early photography, Muybridge designed a new kind of shutter that allowed him to take pictures with a much shorter exposure time: as quick as a thousandth of a second. Using dozens of cameras at once, he produced a proto-movie of horses in motion−and proved, for the first time, that when a thoroughbred gallops he has all four hooves off the ground at the top of his stride.

  • Franz Marc, The Large Blue Horses (1911)

    The horse-loving German painter was, with Wassily Kandinsky, a founding member of The Blue Rider − an innovative expressionist movement that privileged abstracted forms and bold colors that they believed had spiritual significance. Marc was less interested in anatomical accuracy than in an evocation of the horses’ nature; for him, animals were better than humans for expressing a sense of the divine.

  • Susan Rothenberg, Two-Tone (1975)

    After decades when abstraction reigned supreme in American art, Rothenberg reintroduced the figure to avant-garde painting in a series of works that placed horses in large, blank field of color. Yet for her the horse is less an image than a sign – a powerful three-dimensional beast reduced to a two-dimensional, willfully simplified network of lines. (Albright-Knox Art Gallery/Corbis)

  • Berlinde de Bruyckere, K36 (The Black Horse) (2003)

    A severe and unnerving sculptor who represented Belgium at last year’s Venice Biennale, de Bruyckere makes lifelike polyurethane casts, covered in horsehide, that oscillate between the real and the surreal. (She only uses materials from animals who have died from natural causes.) Without eyes, mouths, or sex organs, they reduce the body to flesh in a way that recalls Netherlandish art of centuries past. (Rex Features)