Monday, 12 September 2016






In this, the tenth in my series on equestrian art, I look at another painting I love. It will be familiar to many, since it was painted by no lesser personage than Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). An oil on canvas, it measures 89” x 102¼” (7’5” x 8’6¼”) or 226 x 261 cm and hangs in the Kuntshalle in Hamburg, Germany.

The portrait, of Renoir’s patron, Madame Darras, was painted in 1873. Madame, a picture of Victorian equestrian gentility in sober-hued riding habit, shirt and tie, is looking somewhat stern as she glances down at her companion, Joseph LeCoeur, on a lively pony. She carries a long whip to replace the absence of the leg on the offside of the horse. I also suspect she may give the pony a tap on the shoulder to remind him of his manners should he attempt to barge in front of her own mount. It is said that when the painting was presented to the Salon jury of 1873, they threw up their hands in horror (perhaps not literally) and refused to accept it. The story goes that Monsieur Darras had foreseen this, saying to Renoir:

“Blue horses! Whoever heard of such a thing?”

Horsewoman in the Bois de Boulogne, Renoir
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

This was before the Impressionist Age had truly begun and before that appellation had even been coined. Renoir and Monet were still experimenting with light and colour; this style of painting was quite a shock to the establishment, so it is hardly surprising the picture met with derision.

However, viewing it with a modern eye and loving horses as I do, I can appreciate the skill which has captured the very real blueness that a grey horse’s coat can assume in certain light conditions and from particular angles as well. A grey horse is born dark, sometimes close to black, and the skin is very dark beneath the coat. As the animal ages, the darker hairs (whether ‘dapples’ or merely flecks) lighten until in extreme age the horse becomes white. The pony is a fine example of a dapple-grey, while the horse would appear to be a roan (darker hairs intermingled with the white), although with the tinge of brown on nose and body, it is possible it is a bay that has been clipped out (had the hair removed from its coat to prevent excess sweating). Clipped bays can sometimes appear greyish. Frequently, a dapple-grey will retain his markings on his lower limbs until well into his teens.

One thing I love about the painting is the sheer joy exhibited by both equines. The pony, in particular, is raring to go. His ears are pricked, his head is up and his eyes are bright. He is taking a strong hold on his kind Fulmer snaffle bit, yet his rider is unperturbed by his eagerness and clearly has just checked him back. The boy sits well and is eyeing Madame as if to say, “I’m all right. May we gallop, now?”

By contrast, Madame Darras’ horse is the picture of manners and elegance. The head carriage would not look out of place in a modern dressage arena, while Madame’s hand on the rein is light. The reins of her double bridle loop; there is no tension between the pair. The horse also has its ears pricked and is bounding forward in a springy, willing rhythm. The light catches the gleam of its well-groomed coat and it is evidently a quality animal which receives the best of care. Madame sits proudly on her steed, but if the impression she gives is one of aloofness, bear this in mind. When riding side-saddle, both legs are on the left hand side of the horse. It is therefore essential that the rider sits centrally and erect in the saddle or she will lose her balance. Posture is not just preferable, it is a core requirement of the activity and far more necessary than when riding astride. Madame is the image of a well turned out, skilled equestrienne.

This portrait encapsulates the pleasure of riding for its own sake, the enjoyment derived by both horse and rider when hacking in the countryside. It not only demonstrates the bond between a horseman (or woman) and their steed, it shows how the role of the horse was changing. These two beautiful animals (and mistake me not, little ponies have their own infinite charm!) are not being used for transport, nor for the chase; they are early examples of the horse as a leisure animal, more of a pet than a working beast, and as such, social history at its finest.

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