From the first cave paintings to lifelike depictions, animal paintings have been an innate part of art history since our early ancestors learned how to create prehistoric pigments. In fact, Deleuze and Guattari penned, “art is continually haunted by the animal.”
The difference in the historical period, nation, culture, or traditions has not stopped artists from painting one of the most magnificent and mystical creatures – a horse. The animal that symbolizes grace, poise, and demeanor boasts its genre of painting called an equine painting. Let’s look at one of the most famous horse paintings that art admirers absolutely love.
History of Horses
Horses add a sense of grandeur and luxury and symbolize the nobility of spirit, resilience, and virtue. It is common for artists to draw inspiration from everyday life. Thus, for centuries, horses have found their way into paintings countless times through different art forms.
Horses were used in battle as the cavalry of knights; they were the source of transportation for poor men and a symbol of power for the wealthy. The complexity of their gallop, impressive muscle structure and speed like lightning impressed artists like none other.
Horses have been man’s most valuable companion since the earliest eras, evident from the primitive paintings found in Southern France and Spain caves that date back to approximately 16,000 years.
The Most Famous Horse Painting
Napoleon at the St. Bernard Pass 1801 by Jaques Louis David
One of the most famous horse paintings, Napoleon at the St. Bernard Pass 1801, was commissioned by the ambassador of Spain for King Charles IV. The king wanted to place it in the ‘room of the great captains’ in the Royal Palace in Madrid as a figurative representation of the new hero of Europe.
Jacques-Louis David’s “Napoleon Crossing the Great Saint Bernard Pass” was created between September 1800 – January 1801. The painting showed an idealized image of Bonaparte’s triumphant crossing of St Bernard’s pass in May 1800.
By crossing the dangerous and unnavigable pass, Bonaparte stunned everyone, evoking the feats of two of the greatest captains of the past, whose names are etched in stone at the horse’s feet: Hannibal and Charlemagne.
David portrays Bonaparte as a magnificent victor, mounted in a general-in-chief’s uniform, with one arm outstretched and a gloveless hand pointing toward the mountain summit. He is seated upon a majestic wild horse, mirroring a classic Roman equestrian statue.
Bonaparte liked associating himself with the great leaders of The Holy Roman Empire to give himself an aura of prestige, power, and reverence. So he instructed the artist to create an equestrian portrait: “calme sur un cheval fougueux,” which translates to ‘calm on a fiery horse,’ and David obliged.
In this famous horse painting, David shows Napoleon as a calm yet assertive individual. He is surrounded by a French troop scattered with artillery, massive cliffs, harsh weather, and wild terrain.
Napoleon is meant to look perfect with his windswept hair and intense gaze, which shows that one of the most famous horse paintings & Napoleon’s portrait is idealized. This makes sense since Bonaparte is known to have had a big ego and wanted to be the most powerful man of all.
A Portrait Of Power & Authority
“Napoleon Crossing the Great Saint Bernard Pass” is a narrative painting that tells the story of power and prestige at its peak. Napoleon was the era’s first Romantic hero, and David’s painting created a glamorized image of the perfect hero.
The painting illustrates Bonaparte’s ability to wield incredible power with sound judgment and composure in unknown and dangerous terrains. But did you know that Napoleon never led his troops over the Alps? Instead, he followed a couple of days later, traveling on the back of a mule through a narrow path.
However, that’s not what we see in the painting. Instead of straddling a rearing Arabian stallion, Napoleon and his wild stallion dominate the pictorial plane.
Napoleon (obviously) liked the portrait so much that he ordered three more versions to be painted. A fifth was also created, never leaving David’s studio until his death. Currently, the most famous horse painting has five versions worldwide.
Who Was Jacques-Louis David?
Jacques-Louis David was a 19th-century painter considered the father of the Neoclassical style, which flourished in France between the late 18th and early 19th centuries and brought him fame and recognition.
David painted for royalty, an emperor, and radical revolutionaries. While his political loyalties shifted with time, his allegiance to Neoclassicism remained unchanged. He taught the art of Neoclassicism to a generation of students, including François Gérard, Antoine Jean Gros, Anne Louis Girodet-Trioson, and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.
What Techniques Did He Use?
Unlike his predecessors, who used a gray or red undercoat as the base color on which they built up their paintings, David used a different approach. He directly used white canvas background beneath his colors, later evident in several of his unfinished paintings.
To paint the most famous horse painting, “Napoleon Crossing the Great Saint Bernard Pass,” he used oil on canvas with dimensions of H = 271 cm and L = 232 cm. David’s technique consisted of 2-3 layers.
The first layer captured the outline of the drawing. The second layer corrected faults and filled out details. Finally, the third layer was used for finishing touches to finalize the painting.
The Perfect Leader For A Fallen Country
Art is subjective and has a different effect on everyone. Some find this painting dull and lifeless; some feel it is a great power and influence statement. While some claim it is propaganda rather than art, an overblown, exaggerated, action-packed painting that may have brought a downfall to David’s career.
A lot has been said about David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps. But the fact remains, it is still one of the most famous horse paintings to exist. Not to forget, it is perhaps the most successful portrait of Bonaparte that was ever made.