Horse Paintings: Equestrian Art of Yesterday and Today

"Tower of Blue Horses" by German painter Franz Marc (1880-1916).
"Tower of Blue Horses" by German painter Franz Marc (1880-1916). | Source

Welcome!

Horses are an animal familiar to everyone. They are one of the world's most magnificent animals whose speed, intelligence, power, and beauty is virtually unmatched in the animal kingdom. They have been a best friend and helper to humans and have helped whole civilizations advance. Anyone who has ever ridden a horse can tell how exhilirating it is to feel a horse gallop away across the countryside or how noble it feels just to ride on it while it trots down a park pathway.

The magnificence and beauty of a horse are qualities which have been painted by artists for many thousands of centuries. From the time of cave dwellers up to the present day, artists have painted horses in their full glory as they runs in their wild splendor, gallop off into a senseless battle waged by their human masters, or race against other horses in a horse derby. Many other artists have made world-famous paintings of horses just standing around and doing their daily routine!

In this hub you'll find a history of horse paintings, read about artists who have made world-famous horse paintings, sub-genres of equestrian art, and countries where equestrian art has become popular over the centuries. So, if you want to learn more about equestrian art, please sit back and read on!

Horse Paintings in History

Throughout history, horses have been featured in artwork all over the world.

Horses were painted on cave walls by prehistoric peoples some 20,000 years ago, They were featured in the artwork of virtually all of the great empires, such as the Roman, Persian, and Macedonian empires, as well as many of history's greatest civilizations, such as the Greek, Assyrian, Etruscan, Chinese, Indian and Scythian civilizations.

In the artwork from all the ancient civilizations and cultures, we can see that horses had a spiritual meaning to many of the ancient peoples who inhabited our world centuries ago. Mythological horses such as the white horse have had a spiritual meaning and symbolism for many centuries to many cultures.

Also in equestrian artwork from around the world, we can see that horses were one of humankind's best friends. Horses have been used for utility purposes, military purposes, and pleasure purposes (i.e. riding and racing) by cultures from across the globe.

Three tiny horses painted on one of the Lascaux cave walls in southwestern France. Horses are the most common animal to be found on these walls and these paintings are well over 16,000 years old.
Three tiny horses painted on one of the Lascaux cave walls in southwestern France. Horses are the most common animal to be found on these walls and these paintings are well over 16,000 years old. | Source

Prehistoric Horse Paintings

Prehistoric horse paintings have been found in caves around the world where cave dwellers lived. Paintings of horses have been found in the Lascaux caves in southwestern France, the Las Monedas caves in Puente Viesgo, Spain, and in the Kapova caves of Russia. They depict the horse as the prehistoric peoples of the world saw them...and as they eventually learned to tame and master them.

To the prehistoric peoples, horses were an important food supply and a source of vital materials needed for survival - namely bones and hide. It's also possible that prehistoric people in Europe and elsewhere may have revered the horse since in many of the cave paintings in France and Spain, the horse is depicted very majestically.

Also, judging by these cave paintings, horses living during this time may have been bay and black-colored, as well as spotted.

Horses were also depicted in rock paintings. Ancient petroglyphs of horses have been found throughout the world in countries and regions such as Siberia, India, Korea, China, Libya, and Mongolia. Horse petroglyphs made by Native people have also been found throughout the western and southwest USA.

A Laconian 'dinos' mixing bowl from circa 560-540 BC depicting Achilles on horseback approaching Troilus and Polyxena. This piece is now on display at the Louvre.
A Laconian 'dinos' mixing bowl from circa 560-540 BC depicting Achilles on horseback approaching Troilus and Polyxena. This piece is now on display at the Louvre. | Source

Greek Horse Paintings

Horses were an important part of ancient Greek culture. Horses were ridden into battle by the cavalries of the Greek city-states, were driven by chariot drivers in the ancient Olympic games, and were a part of Greek mythology.

Horses were painted on temple walls and Greek buildings, on pieces of pottery and other small art pieces, and were depicted in many Greek sculptures.

There are a number of ancient Greek pottery pieces which are decorated with paintings of horses. These paintings usually depict scenes and characters from Greek history and mythology, such as Theseus challenging the Amazon women, Zeus riding on his chariot of horses, or Achilles (right) on horseback. These pottery paintings can give us a good idea of what the bigger panel or fresco paintings might've looked like.

Two horse-like creatures from Greek mythology that were also depicted in artwork were the Centaur and the Pegasus. The Centaur, with the upper body of a human and the torso and legs of a horse, can be found in much of the art of ancient Greece. The Pegasus was a winged horse who was massively depicted in ancient Greek artwork. The Pegasus is not only a character from ancient Greek mythology, but an icon that has persisted in artwork in some form or another (especially during the Renaissance) well into the modern day.

"Night-Shining White" by Han Gan (about 720-780).
"Night-Shining White" by Han Gan (about 720-780). | Source
"Mounted Official" by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322).
"Mounted Official" by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322). | Source
"The Eight Horses" by Xu Beihong (1895-1953).
"The Eight Horses" by Xu Beihong (1895-1953). | Source

Chinese Horse Painters

In the West, not many people associate China with horse painting. But believe it or not, China has a long history of horse painting dating back thousands of years to the ancient Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE)!

In China, the horse is regarded as a symbol of dynamism, vitality, and vigor. It is the seventh of the 12 signs of the Chinese Zodiac horoscope.

To the Tang rulers, the horse was a symbol of power and prestige. Horses reflected the military might of the Tang Dynasty and were treasured by the Imperial elite.

Two of ancient China's first famous horse painters were the Tang dyansty general and court painter Cao Ba (713-742), and the court painter Zhang Xuan (713-755). Cao was an influence on a number of other Tang painters, and was the teacher of famed Tang horse painter Han Gan (around 720-780). According to the Tang poet Du Fu, Cao Ba captured not just the exterior beauty of the horses on paper, but their inner spirit as well. Zhang Xuan tended to depict horses trotting around with the aristocracy of the time riding on their back, such as in his famous painting Lady Guoguo on a Spring Outing.

Han Gan (who is also the subject of Chen Jianghong's 2005 children's book The Magic Horse of Han Gan) rose to become the most influential horse painter for many generations to come in ancient China. His paintings, of which very few survive, capture the horse in its full glory as both a beautiful animal and a "celestial steed".

Han Gan's most famous horse painting is his painting Night-Shining White, which was painted sometime around 750 CE. Night-Shining White was a favorite horse of the Tang emperor Xuanzong (712-756) and was a hot-tempered, fiery horse! Han captured Night-Shining White's ferocity on paper for many generations to come!

During the 11th century, the Northern Song dynasty painter Li Gonglin (1049-1106) followed in the footsteps of Han Gan and painted some very striking horse paintings using his famous baimiao technique. This technique focused more on emphasizing the physique and emotions of the subject by using simple black-and-white lines rather than colors. As a result, his horse paintings are very simple, but very vivid.

Li's painting Five Divine Horses, which depicts five horses from beyond China's westernmost boundaries being presented to the Emperor, is particularly famous.

Another famous ancient Chinese horse painter was the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty scholar, calligrapher, painter, and rightful Song prince Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322). His paintings of horses were very colorful and striking, and depicted the horse in its natural environment with the person or people who rode it. Zhao's paintings were beloved by both the ordinary Chinese citizens and the Mongol elite who ruled over China during the time.

In the 20th century, the late Chinese artist Xu Beihong made shuimohua (水墨画), or ink paintings of animals including a number of horse paintings. These paintings were a combination of traditional Chinese ink wash and Western-style oil painting that reflected a new, modern China that was emerging in the early and mid-20th century.

"Uma horse" by 18th century Japanese artist Asahiyama Hirasawa.
"Uma horse" by 18th century Japanese artist Asahiyama Hirasawa. | Source

Japanese Horse Paintings

In Japan, there are eight breeds of horses that can be found across the country. Some of these breeds come from continental Asian countries such as China and Korea, but there are some native Japanese breeds. Over the years, Japanese horses have been used for military purposes, farming purposes by farmers and villagers in rural Japan, and for pleasure riding. Many of these breeds are endangered or extinct.

Many of Japan's greatest artists such as Katsushika Hokusai, Ando Hiroshige, and others have made dramatic paintings and ukiyo-e woodcuts of horses in battle, horses being ridden by nobility and scholars, horses toiling in an ancient Japanese village, and more.

One of Japan's most famous horse painters is the 18th century painter Asahiyama Hirasawa. Hirasawa was a horse breeder and a popular artist in Edo period Japan. Hirsawa painted a series of woodcuts depicting horses doing their everyday routines. This series depicted the Japanese horse in full detail of anatomy and posture.

One of the most famous Japanese painters of horses during the Showa period (1926-1989) is Yoshijiro (Mokuchu) Urushibara (1888-1953). Urushibara was one of Japan's most famous woodblock artists of the 20th century and he made many black and white prints of natural subjects, including horses. Many of these prints are on display in museums and art galleries around the world.

An early 19th century painting of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan by Mughal artist Govardhan.
An early 19th century painting of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan by Mughal artist Govardhan. | Source
"A Horse and his Trader" by Rajput artist Bagta, painted circa 1800.
"A Horse and his Trader" by Rajput artist Bagta, painted circa 1800. | Source

Indian Horse Paintings

Equestrian art has flourished in India over the centuries. Horses have been a part of Indian (and Pakistani and Afghan) culture for over 3500 years since they first arrived in the Indian subcontinent. It's only natural that artwork featuring Indian horses soon followed the horse's arrival!

Ancient stone paintings featuring horses can be found at the Bhimbetka rock art site south of Bhopal. These paintings and carvings date back to at least 2500 BCE.

During the art renaissance of the Mughal Empire (1526-1827), horses became a popular subject for Mughal painters. Many of the Empire's most famous painters made some striking paintings depicting horses in battle, horses carrying nobility, and much more. The Mughal rajahs also commissioned artists to make paintings of their favorite horses.

One popular Mughal motif was the emaciated horse motif. One possible interpretation of this motif is that the emaciated horse represents the desires of the human body, which have to be reigned in like a horse.

Mughal art was a major influence on the Rajputs, who made some amazing equestrian paintings of their own. In the Rajput states - or what is now known as Rajasthan - horse art became hugely popular. Paintings depicted the famed Marwari horses (with their false elephant trunks, which decived the elephants into thinking they were baby elephants!) going into battle against elephants, and Rajput royalty, who typically dwarfed their almost-invisible servants with their horses. Rajasthani art was very similar to Mughal artwork , but Rajasthani horse paintings were often painted to celebrate and demonstrate the authority of the Rajput rulers.

Today equestrian art is still a popular artwork genre in India. Many modern Indian artists make contemporary equestrian paintings, and a number of traditional and folk artists across India still make them the old-fashioned way by using materials such as paper, silk, and gemstones!

"Germanicus In Front of the Disaster of Varus" by Lionel Royer (1852-1926).
"Germanicus In Front of the Disaster of Varus" by Lionel Royer (1852-1926). | Source

War Horses in Painting

Throughout history and throughout the world, horses have been used for military purposes. They have been used mainly as a means of transportation or for hauling equipment, and as a tool of war. Sadly enough, countless numbers have died around the world as a result of the wars waged by humans.

Paintings of horses in battle are familiar to almost everyone. They have been depicted in battles such as those waged by the ancient Greeks to the Crusades on up to the First World War. Horses have also been painted on other non-traditional medium, such as armor, banners, and others.

Some of the most famous paintings of horses in the midst of war include the Italian Renaissance painter and mercenary Paolo Uccello's set of paintings titled The Battle of San Romano and Pablo Picasso's powerful 1937 masterpiece Guernica.

"The Battle of San Romano" by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475).
"The Battle of San Romano" by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475). | Source

Horse Paintings of the Renaissance

During the European Renaissance of the 14th-17th centuries, horse paintings surged in popularity for the first time since the days of ancient Greece and Rome. Many of the great Renaissance painters made breathtakingly beautiful equine paintings and statues.

One of the great Renaissance horse paintings was Italian painter Paolo Uccello's series of paintings The Battle of San Romano (right), which was painted in 1438. This series, which depicts the Florentine cavalry going into battle against Sienese forces in 1432, are some of the first Renaissance-era paintings to use linear perpsective.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) did a number of detailed sketches of horses for some of his masterpieces, including his painting Battle of Anghiari and his horse statue, which was never finished until the late 20th century. These studies have become works of art in themselves!

Other Renaissance artists who made noteworthy equestrian paintings include Albrecht Dürer, Raphael, Titian, and Michelangelo, who made some stunning charcoal drawings of horses from Greco-Roman mythology.

"Whistlejacket" by George Stubbs (1724-1806), currently on display at the National Gallery in London.
"Whistlejacket" by George Stubbs (1724-1806), currently on display at the National Gallery in London. | Source

George Stubbs: The Great English Horse Painter

One of the most famous artists to ever capture the horse on canvas was the 18th century English Romantic painter George Stubbs.

Stubbs's paintings of horses are some of the most detailed ever painted, as well as some of the most dramatic. Stubb's horses are featured in their full glory against a striking backdrop of the English countryside or, as in the case of his most famous painting Whistlejacket, against no backdrop at all.

While Stubbs was most famous for his horse paintings, he studied anatomy and spent a good part of his career painting portraits, historical paintings, paintings of the English countryside and villagers, and anatomical paintings. He was also a printmaker and enamel painter, although his ventures into the world of enamel were not as successful.

In 1766, Stubbs released his series The Anatomy of the Horse, which were his most famous horse paintings. Among the paintings in this series are Whistlejacket, Horse Attacked by a Lion, and Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a Trainer, a Stable lad, and a Jockey.

George Stubb's legacy of horse paintings has lasted well into the 21st century and has influenced generations of equine artists for well over 200 years!

"Horses Before the Stands" by Edgar Degas (1834-1917).
"Horses Before the Stands" by Edgar Degas (1834-1917). | Source

Horse Race Paintings and Pictures

Horse races have been a popular subject for painters since the nineteenth century. Many of the late 18th and 19th century Romantic and Impressionist painters such as George Stubbs, the French artists Edgar Degas, Théodore Géricault, Edouard Manet, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec all made famous paintings of horse races.

When the camera debuted to the world in the 19th century, the horse race was something the early photographers caught in picture. The 19th century English photographer Eadweard Muybridge was one of the first photographers to capture the horse in real-life motion. Muybridge's portraits were an inspiration for many of the horse painters of the period, including Degas, who used some of these pictures as a basis for his paintings. Muybridge's photographs of the movement and gait of the horses were a huge inspiration for other horse painters as well, who wanted to capture this movement and stance in their paintings.

Some of the great horse derbies of England and France such as the Epsom and French Derbies served as inspiration for Victorian-era horse race paintings. Of course, not only were scenes from the derby the subject of the painting, but the jockeys and horses themselves were also subjects!

Today artwork of horse races are still popular. In the US, a number of American sports artists including LeRoy Neiman, C.W. Vittitow, and Fred Stone have made famous paintings of American horse races such as the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes in recent decades.

'The Earl of Chesterfield's 'Industry' with W Scott Up and Caroline Elvina With J Holmes Up in a Paddock" by J.F. Herring (1795-1865).
'The Earl of Chesterfield's 'Industry' with W Scott Up and Caroline Elvina With J Holmes Up in a Paddock" by J.F. Herring (1795-1865). | Source

Fox Hunting Paintings

Scenes of the fox hunt are a popular subject for sporting painters. Scenes of mounted fox hunters riding on the backs of horses in pursuit of foxes across the English countryside or calmly trotting through the woods while their masters scan the trees for a fox have been a favorite for lovers of hunting and wildlife art and a favorite subject for equine painters for well over a century.

Many famous horse painters - British painters in particular - have painted the horse in the midst of a fox hunt. One of the most famous was the English artist John Ferneley (1782-1860), who is often regarded as the second greatest British horse painter of all time right next to George Stubbs. Ferneley painted a number of famous hunts and statesmen mounted on their horses. Ferneley began painting when hunting was starting to become popular in Britain and his paintings depict this sport among Britain's elite very well.

The British artist and coachman J.F. Herring (1792-1865) was another Victorian artist who painted some memorable paintings of fox hunts. In fact, they were so memorable that Herring had HRH The Dutchess of Kent and even Queen Victoria herself as loyal patrons! In addition to hunting scenes, Herring also painted a number of other equestrian and farm-related paintings.

Other artists who have painted famous fox hunting paintings over the years include Lionel Edwards, George Stubbs, Sir Francis Grant (who was given a little help in his paintings from his good friend John Ferneley), Cecil Aldin, and Sir Alfred Munnings.

"The Fall of the Cowboy", an 1895 painting by Frederic Remington (1861-1909).
"The Fall of the Cowboy", an 1895 painting by Frederic Remington (1861-1909). | Source

Western Horse Paintings

Some of the most famous horse paintings in the world are the ones that depict the horse in one of the terrains with which it is most associated: The American Wild West.

Scenes of horses on the prairie, wild horses running through canyons in America's Southwest, and cowboys, Indians, and cavalry troops mounted on horseback were painted by the great Western painters such as Frederic Remington, Charles "C.M." Russell, Charles Schreyvogel, Dan Muller, Olaf Wieghorst, Frank Tenney Johnson, and J.K. Ralston.

Of all the Western painters, Frederic Remington was the most famous and influential of all. His paintings depicted the people and places of the West as they truly were. Some of his paintings are icons of the Old West that have endured through the generations since he first painted them! Remington was a major influences on other great Western artists such as Charles Schreyvogel and C.M. Russell.

Charles "C.M." Russell was the other great Western painter of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He captured the West on canvas using vivid colors and authentic, accurate details on the people in his paintings.

Remington and Russell - as well as all the other great Western artists - captured the Wild West in full color before it began to vanish into history.

"War Path" by Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874).
"War Path" by Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874). | Source

Native American Horse Art and Paintings

During the 18th and 19th centuries, horse culture spread like wildfire among the Plains and Southwest Indian tribes after the introduction of the horse by the Spanish colonizers of the American West. The horse changed the way of life for many Indian Nations. Many mastered the art of horse-riding and learned to hunt and fight in battle on horseback. Nations such as the Comanche and the Great Sioux Nation organized some of the most superior mounted armies in the world.

Many artists - and in particular painters of the Western genre - immortalized this horse culture on canvas. Artists such as George Catlin, Charles Russell (who often painted his paintings from the Native point of view), Frederic Remington, the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, and Alfred Jacob Miller painted spectacular scenes of Natives riding bareback on horseback into battle, scouting on the prairie, horse racing, or hunting buffalo on a Mustang or Appaloosa.

These paintings have given countless generations a glimpse into life for the Native peoples in the US in those days.

Modern Horse Art

Art has changed greatly over the past century, but horses have continued to be painted over the years! Equestrian art is still flourishing in the 21st century. In fact, horse paintings have made a niche of their own in modern contemporary art!

During the 20th century, artists depicted the horse in styles such as Modernist, Post-modern, and Minimalist that would dominate the century. German painter Franz Marc painted some Expressionist horse paintings and Spanish artist Pablo Picasso painted some of the most unique horse paintings ever made in his Cubist style.

In the modern era, artists such as Fred Stone and Susan Crawford are two of the most famous equestrian painters. Susan Crawford's painting "We Three Kings", which depicts Britain's three greatest race horses (Arkle, Red Rum, and Desert Orchid), has become one of the greatest equestrian prints to be sold worldwide in recent decades. Fred Stone's dramatic paintings of American racehorse greats such as Seabiscuit and Secretariat and jockeys such as Bill Shoemaker have earned him a special place in equestrian art history.

Thanks For Your Visit!

Horses are an animal that have been a favorite subject of art for many thousands of years. Instead of fading out of popularity, equestrian art keeps adapting with the times! A horse painting can be just as fashionable as any other piece of modern art. Most importantly of all, a modern-day horse painting is part of a tradition that has lasted tens of thousands of years and spanned many continents and countries.

Thank you for visiting this hub and hopefully you've enjoyed this overview of equestrian art. This hub is a work-in-progress and is nowhere near finished, so please check in again soon for any future updates! If you have any questions, suggestions, or any other feedback, feel free to post in the Comments below.

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Comments 7 comments

kristyleann profile image

kristyleann 4 years ago from Oceana, WV

This is really interesting. I had no idea horses were such a big subject in artwork throughout the world, but now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense. These are beautiful works of art. :)


truefaith7 profile image

truefaith7 4 years ago from USA Author

Thanks for the feedback Kristyleann! It is amazing how horses have become such a popular subject in art throughout the world across so many continents. Some of the history behind this artwork is truly fascinating.....


Dbro profile image

Dbro 4 years ago from Texas, USA

What a thorough and well written article! You have gone to very extensive research on this subject - one it's obvious you care about very much. I appreciate the amount of work went into this great overview of equestrian art. As an artist myself, I love it when creative endeavors are given such respect and attention. I paint horses myself, and know what a wonderful subject they can be. Thank you for this scholarly article. Are you a horse lover, an artist yourself, or both?


truefaith7 profile image

truefaith7 4 years ago from USA Author

Thanks so much for the feedback Dbro! I did a whole lot of research for this hub, and glad to see that my hard work paid off! Beyond making crafts and jewelry, I'm not an artist per se, but I am an art afficionado. I do enjoy viewing works of art and learning about new genres. The history of equestrian art and how the horse has been depicted across globe and throughout history is totally fascinating. This was a hub I thoroughly enjoyed researching...and it inspired me to start a "spinoff" blog!

Good luck with your artistic endeavors! It's good to see some equestrian artists here on HP and if you ever decide to make a hub featuring your own horse paintings, I for one would be interested to see it!


Dbro profile image

Dbro 4 years ago from Texas, USA

What a great idea, trufaith7! I may just do an equestrian painting hub someday! While I'm not an expert, I do love to draw and paint horses. You can see some examples of my work on my website. I'd love it if you'd stop by!


Dbro profile image

Dbro 4 years ago from Texas, USA

I will look up your blog, truefaith7. I'm happy that you enjoyed my artwork. It is the thing I love most to do in this world, and I hope it shows.


delia-delia profile image

delia-delia 20 months ago

Interesting how you can tell what era paintings of horses come from...style, carriage of legs and head set, etc....My favorite horse painter is French Alfred de Dreux

Some of my equine paintings were accepted into the "American Academy of Equine Ar"

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