I was excited to write about the addition to the National Sporting Library & Museum’s permanent collection of a painting by Henry Stull (American, 1851–1913), one of a generous gift of 16 works in 2020, currently on view in the Museum. I thought it would be a straightforward blog post announcing the work and sharing some information about it.
The signed and undated composition depicts a chestnut horse with a blaze and a white sock and a Black jockey up wearing maroon racing silks with a red sash and a red cap. In the background, barns are visible. The frame bears the title “Buchanan / Derby 1884 / I. Murphy Up Henry Stull” referencing American jockey Isaac Burns Murphy’s win of the 1884 Kentucky Derby aboard Buchanan, the racehorse’s maiden race (meaning its first ever win). The desire for a painting of arguably the most talented jockey of his day, who would win three Kentucky Derbys in total, and the winning racehorse to commemorate a momentous tenth running of the Derby is perfectly understandable. In a short video presented by the Kentucky Derby Museum, Director of Curatorial & Educational Affairs Chris Goodlett gives a brief overview of Murphy’s career including an image of Buchanan at 0:20 sec.
When I watched the video, my suspicions were confirmed. I had come across the same image reproduced on a collectors card, “Buchanan, 1884” in a series titled “Horse Star Cards,” published in 1991. The black and white photographic reproduction of another painting of Buchanan presents a horse with no blaze or white sock. The image source is Churchill Downs, the famed track in Louisville, KY, opened in 1875 that has been home to the Kentucky Derby since its first running.
The sporting artist Henry Stull who painted NSLM’s composition was also a racehorse owner and was known for his accurate equine portraits. The unnamed artist of the second painting seems to have had a competent understanding of horse anatomy as well. The technique of the latter bears strong similarities to works by animal artist Harry Lyman (American, 1856–1933) who painted other early Kentucky Derby winners: Aristides, the first winner of the Kentucky Derby, and Spokane in 1889. Both artists made a living painting accurate portraits of horse conformation (the physical shape and structure of an animal). The differences between the works point to the extreme likelihood that they depict two different horses. As it is unlikely that Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum would possess inaccurate records of its winning equines, it is almost certain that NSLM’s painting is not of Buchanan.
Maybe you are asking yourself why I would so readily accept the possibility that the title plaque on the frame would have inaccuracies. Labels such as these can be added at any time, and I have come across many over the years that turned out to have errors. I research with the idea that I expect to find anomalies. With time, memory fades and legends are made.
This approach then begs the question of whether or not the sitter is Isaac Burns Murphy. The painting is small, 11 x 14 inches, and there is not much detail in the facial portrait. Although Murphy tragically died of heart failure at the age of 34 in 1896, he won at least 500 races in his career alone, leaving much to be researched.
Further complicating the picture (no pun intended), the latter quarter of the 19th century was an exciting time in horse racing history in which not just Murphy but a number of winning Black jockeys dominated the sport and broke race records. Several attained success and fame riding for numerous racehorse owners until, with the spread of Jim Crow laws, they retired or left the American racing scene for Britain and Europe.
Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton and Willie Simms, for example, were just two racing at that time who also won Kentucky Derby races. Clayton was the youngest jockey to win the Derby in 1892 at the age of 15 and took first place in an impressive 144 races in the 1895 season. In the same year, Simms was the first Black jockey to compete in Britain and was an international sensation. He was among the first to ride with short stirrups, handily beating his contenders riding in the traditional long stirrup seat at the first Spring meeting in Newmarket, England. Simms was reported in the 07 April 1895 St. Louis Dispatch to have been paid a salary of $12,500 and an additional incentive of $5,000 to go oversees that year, totaling an equivalent of over $500,000 today!
The black and white photos of Clayton and Simms above show intriguing similarities of jockey silk patterns to the NSLM’s Stull painting and warrant a dive into registered racing colors and race records for comparisons. I revel in going down these rabbit holes, but for now, I am sad to leave you with more questions than answers. As I continue to pursue a confirmation of the identity of the jockey, we must content ourselves in the meantime with the knowledge that the sitter personifies the young men whose epic careers lost footing in sporting memory in the Jim Crow era and resurgent prejudice. Progress has been made in the past decades to recover the storied careers of these gifted horsemen, but as this painting illustrates, there is much that remains to be done. We celebrate the triumphs and athleticism of these talented individuals whose names must be recorded, remembered, and revered.
Claudia Pfeiffer is the Deputy Director and George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator at the National Sporting Library & Museum and has been with the organization since the position was first 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 email@example.com