We would like to thank Lorian Peralta-Ramos for her assistance in cataloguing this work, which will be included in her forthcoming Alfred J. Munnings catalogue raisonné.
Scott & Fowles, New York (by circa 1950)
Wildenstein Gallery, New York (by circa 1953, from the acquisition of Scott & Fowles' inventory)
Private Collection, United States
Sale: Sotheby's, New York, June 5, 1992, lot 276, illustrated
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
In The Start, Alfred Munnings distilled the grandeur and tensions of the great English racing scene into its most essential moment. Against the broad sweep of the Newmarket heath and an expansive, animated sky, Munnings focused tightly on a large field of horses being coaxed or restrained by their brightly dressed jockeys into a formal line for the start of a race. The Start was painted during the late 1940s or at the beginning of the 1950s and is one of some two dozen racing pictures in which Munnings concentrated narrowly on horses and riders in order to convey the powerful excitement he himself always felt as he watched a race come to order.
To hold attention on the horses in The Start, Munnings eliminated any glimpse of the crowds, the stands, or even the starter and his flag. Using only slight variations in the animals' coloring, he organized the repeating forms of the horses and their shadows into one of his tightest race lines, then set a single rearing animal against the motion of the larger group to convey the tension of the impending competition. Finally, vibrant notes of red and orange in the jockeys' silks and caps bounce the viewer's eye around the assembled field, acting as a metaphor for the action to come.
Munnings included either a finished “start” painting or a less polished “start” sketch in virtually every Royal Academy show in which he exhibited between 1940 and his death in 1959; and by the end of the Second World War his "starts" were the principal focus of his art. In part, Munnings had become resistant to the commissioned work that he felt so constrained his freedom, but more importantly after the war he was living again at his country house in Dedham -- close enough to the racecourse at Newmarket (about 40 miles away) to allow him to visit regularly throughout the racing season. In addition to watching three or four races a day, as he often did, Munnings kept a studio right at the track (through the courtesy of the Jockey Club) in an old rubbing barn. Munnings frequently described the different “starts” that he witnessed in the autobiography on which he was working concurrently, and he ruefully acknowledged the frustrations he faced in getting the specific character of these always-unique moments onto canvas. In an oft-quoted passage, he summarized the experience: "I am standing on the course -- the most beautiful course in the world: cloudless October sky, a faint wind from the east....I am looking at the scene, the old, old scene -- a centuries old scene. Horses come up the course looking like those of years ago....Bright colors in the sun just the same as of yore....What a sight for the artist! with the long shadows and the lights on the boots, lights on the horses....This is the best picture I have ever seen -- why can't I paint it?" (Sir Alfred Munnings, The Finish, London, 1952, pp. 216-17). Photographs of Munnings in his studio from these years often show him with two or three distinctive "starts" and the supporting studies before him at once, and pentimenti (slight changes made visible by time) in the present painting trace how carefully Munnings' resolved the rhythms of horses' legs and shifting clouds for his final effect.
A similarly sized but more roughly painted variant of The Start belongs to the Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum, Dedham (see Wildenstein, Alfred J, Munnings: Images of the Turf and Field, New York, 1983, no. 79).
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