You see, I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name. It felt good to be out of the rain. – Dewey Newell
I once read that Dewey Newell, a member of the band, America, wrote the lyrics for the quintessential 1970s flower-power ballad, A Horse with No Name, inspired by the works of two artists – Salvador Dali’s surrealist desserts and M.C. Escher’s horsemen.
Works such as these are obviously not intended to depict a particular horse. Sporting portraits, though, are usually realistic renderings of the unique physical traits a specific equine subject. Whenever I come across a portrait of an unnamed horse, America’s song inevitably crosses my mind, even if for a second. Groom Leading a Stallion to the Paddock, 1884, by Henry Stull was one of the paintings that made me hum the haunting tune to myself. The oil on canvas is a life estate bequest from George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. and has been on extended loan from Mrs. Jacqueline L. Ohrstrom to the National Sporting Library & Museum for several years.
Who was this dark bay stallion? The painting also puzzled me because it is a bit of a departure for Stull and shows British influences. The early composition was completed when he was still working as an illustrator, before he turned completely to easel painting (Burlew 94). The horizon line is low, which allowed an artist to contrast the subject against the sky as a background. The groom’s face is hidden. Was Stull masking his weakness in human portraiture, or was he emulating earlier sporting artists such as John Wootton who sometimes positioned grooms or jockeys facing away from the viewer or obstructed by compositional elements?
Stull’s painting is now on view in the exhibition, The Chronicle of the Horse in Art, at the National Sporting Library & Museum through March 26th. In researching the exhibit, I came across this Chronicle of the Horse cover:
It was a revelation. The horse had a name. The famed Duke of Magenta was a Preakness, Withers, Belmont, and Travers Stakes winner, and the painting was completed for the race horse’s owner George L. Lorillard, as noted in the unpublished manuscript, A Glow of Silver: Henry Stull, 1851-1913, by Frederick B. Burlew held in the NSLM’s manuscript collection. Additionally, the painting was previously owned by another founder of the NSLM, sporting scholar Alexander Mackay-Smith.
There is nothing that pleases me more than to reconnect the dots of history and provenance. “In the desert you can remember your name. ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain. La La la-lalalala…” – Dewey Newell
Claudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at firstname.lastname@example.org