This Saturday, September 9, our newest exhibition opens at the Museum, and visitors will get to come face-to-face with 2,500-year-old horses.

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Attributed to the Workshop of Gorgon Painter, (Greek, Attic), Horse-head Amphora, ca. 580-570 BCE, terracotta, 10 3/8 inches high, Private Collection. Each side of this amphora features a portrait of a horse with halter and flowing mane.

The Horse in Ancient Greek Art is an exciting new show that features painted vases, small sculpture, and silver coins, all from the 8th thru 4th centuries BCE. These objects are beautiful treasures that, amazingly, have survived over two and a half millennia. Every art object has a story to tell and a history to share – but these objects have a particularly long history! In addition to being spectacular archaeological finds, these works of art tell us all about equestrian life of the ancient Greek world.

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Attributed to the Orestes Painter, Greek (Attic), Red-figure Column Krater, ca. 440 BCE, Side A: Jockeys racing around column, terracotta,16 1/4 inches high, 14 3/8 inches wide, Private Collection. Ancient jockeys, who rode nude, raced their horses on long oval tracks with a sharp turn at each end.

In ancient Greece, horses represented nobility, strength, and beauty. Horses appear throughout Greek art and literature, play important roles in mythology and legend (some of the most popular examples include the Trojan Horse and Pegasos – spelled Pegasus in Latin), and were a key part of ancient society and culture. The Greeks loved athletics and competition, and equestrian sports became some of the most prestigious events at the Olympics and other types of games.

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Euainetos of Syracuse, Sicily, Dekadrachum, ca. 405-400 BCE, silver, 1 3/8 inches diameter, Private Collection, Washington, DC. This coin (equaling 10 drachmas) features an impressive relief of a quadriga, or four-horse chariot, with Nike, Goddess of Victory, flying overhead.

The Greek historian, author, and cavalry officer named Xenophon (ca. 430-354 BCE), wrote treatises on horse care and training. The concepts shared in his manuals on horsemanship and riding basically formed the foundation for modern equitation, and his writings have been referenced and translated over many centuries.

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Villanovan or Early Etruscan (Italy), Horse bit, ca. 800-700 BCE, bronze,3 3/4 x 6 x 5 inches, Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University (Photo: Kevin Montague). This ancient bit is a simple snaffle (a single jointed, mild type of bit) with decorative cheek pieces in the shape of a mare and foal.

Many of the objects in the show are vases, or vessels, featuring beautifully detailed decoration and paintings. Most were originally meant to be functional – as drinking cups, pitchers, or storage containers for wine or oil. Now they are displayed so the artwork on all sides – top, bottom, inside, and outside – can be seen and enjoyed.

NSLM partnered with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond for this project. After the exhibition closes here in January, it will travel on to the second venue there. We are thrilled to be able to share so many works on loan from important collections for this show, including: the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Tampa Museum of Art, Princeton University Art Museum, the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and private collections. The Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Fordham University , and the American Numismatic Society are also lending works that will be shown at the VMFA venue.

We are also excited to present the catalog that goes with this exhibition. It features essays by major scholars of ancient art and archaeology and explores the significance of the horse in the ancient Greek world. To learn more about the exhibition, the catalog, or all the great programming we have lined up, visit here.

The Horse in Ancient Greek Art is organized by the National Sporting Library & Museum and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It will be on view at NSLM, September 9, 2017 – January 14, 2018.

 

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The majority of works in the art collection of the NSLM are by British or American artists. However, we also have some excellent examples by continental European artists. Our only painting by a Dutch artist also happens to be one of the oldest paintings in the collection.

Portrait of a Horse in a Landscape, c. 1690, oil on panel, 18 7/8 x 23 ¼ inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of Mrs. Henry H. Weldon, 2008
Portrait of a Horse in a Landscape, c. 1690, oil on panel, 18 7/8 x 23 ¼ inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of Mrs. Henry H. Weldon, 2008

Portrait of a Horse in a Landscape was painted by Abraham van Calraet (Dutch, 1642–1722) around 1690. Calraet was from the city of Dordrecht, in the southwest region of The Netherlands. He lived and worked during the later half of the great Dutch “Golden Age,” a time of amazing artistic production, when artists like Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals, and Judith Leyster flourished. Calraet painted still lifes, landscapes, and small horse portraits, or “Pferdeporträts,” which were increasingly popular in the late-17th century. He likely studied with another Dordrecht painter, the more well-known Aelbert Cuyp (Dutch, 1620-1691). Both artists often signed their works with their initials “A.C.”, which led to some confusion. For many years – centuries, actually – works by Calraet were attributed to Cuyp. In many instances, Cuyp’s signature was falsely added to the paintings. It wasn’t until the early-20th century that scholars started identifying which of those works were actually by Calraet.

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The dark bay horse in the NSLM painting has a broad chest, substantial build, and a kind eye. He is shown standing in a field with no tack and no humans to be seen, though he is shod and clearly well cared for. Most of the background is made up of sky and clouds. The landscape below features a small group of cows lounging near the river bank (a common scene in Dutch paintings of this time period). The modestly sized oil painting is on wood panel, rather than canvas.

Calraet_hoof detail
detail of hooves, with horseshoe nails
Calraet_cow detail
detail of cows in background

It is not known whether the painting was commissioned by the owner of the horse, or if the artist chose the subject because it would sell well on the open market. But we do know that the exact same dark bay horse appears in another Calraet painting from the same time period.

Abraham van Calraet, Horses in a Marsh Landscape, c.1690, oil on panel, 15 x 20 1/8 inches, Private Collection
Abraham van Calraet, Horses in a Marsh Landscape, c.1690, oil on panel, 15 x 20 1/8 inches, Private Collection

Here the dark bay has been joined by a chestnut friend, and a more typical Dutch landscape (with a meadow and windmills) is shown in the background.

Another Calraet work which bears similarities to our painting is in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

A Brown and White Horse with a Saddle Beside It, 1675-1685, oil on oak panel, 13 ½ x 17 ½ inches, Victoria & Albert Museum, Bequeathed by Rev. Chauncey Hare Townshend, 1868, © Victoria & Albert Museum
A Brown and White Horse with a Saddle Beside It, 1675-1685, oil on oak panel, 13 ½ x 17 ½ inches, Victoria & Albert Museum, Bequeathed by Rev. Chauncey Hare Townshend, 1868, © Victoria & Albert Museum

Like the NSLM piece, this painting is also on wood panel, and a lone horse is the focus. While this horse is a paint, the conformation and sweet expression are very similar to our dark bay. The background is much darker, and the foreground here shows barnyard supplies – a 17th century saddle and tack, a curry comb and brush, a bucket, and a clog shoe. All three of these paintings include a feature the artist and his contemporaries often incorporated into compositions – the tree or tree stump in the very near foreground.

The NSLM’s Calraet horse is quite well traveled (those Dutch warmbloods are such jet setters). During its lifetime, the painting has been included in exhibitions in London, Dordrecht, Paris, Birmingham, Alabama, New Orleans, and Baltimore, Maryland.  In 2008, the work came to stay at its new home here at the NSLM, when it was generously donated by Mrs. Henry H. Weldon.

Portrait of a Horse in a Landscape is currently on view in the permanent collection galleries of the Museum. Stop by and meet him soon!