“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” So goes a 16th century nursery rhyme advocating hard work. Artists have been knowing that for some thousands of years, working to create stirring images of horses from cave paintings to contemporary art. I wish readers would come have a look at three horses on view in the American Wing at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Consider the American cowboy, arguably one of the most powerful mythic beings to appear since the pantheon of Greek gods peered down from the Acropolis in Athens. Recently, the BMA acquired an example of Frederick Remington’s first bronze sculpture, Bronco Buster [above]. Remington was already established as a painter and magazine illustrator when he copyrighted the piece in 1895. The Roman Bronze Works in New York cast ours in 1906, while Remington was still around to manipulate its metal surface, creating individualized textural effects as he did with each of the casts made while he was alive. Remington tackled a rousing subject – a bucking horse testing the rider’s strength by doing its utmost to land him in the dust. So well did the artist capture an ideal of rugged individuality that more than 300 authorized casts of the Bronco Buster were made over a twenty-year period during and after the artist’s life-time. You might occasionally glimpse one in the Oval Office at the White House when the nation’s President appears on television.
Sketching the Bronco Buster in a note to Owen Wister, who pioneered American Western fiction, Remington wrote, “my oils will all get ‘old mastery’ [like] molasses, my watercolors will fade – but I am to endure in bronze.” Once the mythic cowboy gained traction in popular culture, he, too, has endured – providing unlimited material for Hollywood producers and actors. Some of the early programs might seem tame in an entertainment world crowded by pneumatically muscled action heroes wearing stretchy revealing outfits, carrying bizarre attributes, equipped with supernatural powers, and always open to futuristic options for intergalactic transport. But I still recall being transported by a 1950s black-and-white television series featuring a masked man in tight (for then, anyway) pants and a matching cowboy hat, rearing up on a colorless-coordinated white stallion. He’d just dispatched the baddies, distributed a silver bullet (symbol of law and order; also effective against werewolves…), and declaimed, “Tonto, our work here is done,” before galloping off to a resounding “Hi Yo Silver, Awaaaaaaaaaaaaay!”
The BMA stables numerous silver horses. Not called “Silver” – made out of it. They embellish racing trophies from the 19th and 20th centuries. An elegant racer named Lexington tops my favorite, the Woodlawn Vase [right]. Tiffany & Company created the three-foot-high trophy for the now defunct Woodlawn Racing Association of Louisville, Kentucky. Anticipating the elaborate presentation silver of America’s Gilded Age, the vase is covered with inscriptions and racing emblems, including horseshoes, saddles, jockey caps, a stallion, mare with foal, and even tiny engraved signboards bearing the rules of the original 1861 Kentucky race for which the vase was named. Ridden by a jockey, Lexington is poised at the top of the vase above four winged victories. In 1870, a thoroughbred named Preakness, sired by Lexington, won the first stakes race ever held at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Given to the Maryland Jockey Club in 1917 as the trophy for that annual event, the enormous silver vase still makes its yearly appearance at The Preakness Stakes held at Pimlico. Like I said, “Hi Yo Silver, Awaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!’
A third captivating horse displayed in the American Wing is a riderless bronze by Elie Nadelman [fig. 3]. First conceived as a large decorative plaster for cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubenstein’s New York apartment, this sinuous creature sets one delicate hoof on classical tradition, and another on an important French modernist text. Having read Charles Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life (1863), Nadelman knew the drawings of Constantin Guys who “applied himself to the personal beauty of horses.” Nadelman’s sculpture recalls Constantine Guys’ drawings. Nadelman also studied classical antiquities. Critic Lincoln Kirstein associated his elegantly streamlined steed with the mythical horses that pulled Poseidon’s chariot across the waters, as described in a poem by modernist writer Constantine Cavafy: “Their bodies, their feet, must clearly show/ they do not tread the earth, but run on the sea.” The BMA’s large bronze was cast posthumously, but a smaller life-time bronze casting, exhibited in a New York gallery in 1917, made Nadelman an art star almost overnight.
Like all talented artists whose work resonates over time, Nadelman had wide-ranging interests. If his modernist equine sculpture reminds you of prehistoric ponies painted on the walls of caves in southern France and Spain, you’ve twigged another of the artist’s inspirations. Hi Yo—but not necessarily silver…