Estate of the artist (sold: 4e Vente, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, July 2-4, 1919, lot 223)
Durand-Ruel, New York (acquired at the above sale)
Reed Gallery, New York (acquired from the above on January 24, 1921)
James Henry Lockhart, Jr., Rochester
E.V. Thaw & Co., Inc., New York
Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney (acquired from the above on November 25, 1974)
New York, Durand-Ruel Gallery, Exhibition of pastels and drawings by Degas (1834-1917), 1920, no. 71
Saratoga Springs, New York, National Museum of Racing, A Selection of Equestrian Art from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. JohnHay Whitney, 1989, no. 6
The subject of horse racing first appeared in Degas' work in the 1860s, when he began to attend racing events around France. His interest in contemporary subjects, coupled with the increasing popularity of horse racing in Europe, helped propel the equestrian theme into the forefront his oeuvre. As Ronald Pickvance has noted, “In the 1860s Degas began observing horses for himself, which he could do quite easily during his stays with Henri Valpinçon, whose estate lay close to Haras-le-Pin, one of the foremost horse-breeding establishments in France. Many pencil studies exist, showing how he explored the form of the horse from every conceivable angle. The majority were done quickly, with an exploratory but decisive line; a few were given a more elaborate finish…But he also concentrated his attentions on the jockeys, relentlessly analyzing their bodily tensions in the saddle” (Ronald Pickvance, Degas’ Racing World (exhibition catalogue), Wildenstein and Co., Inc., New York, 1969, n.p.).
The equestrian theme remained one of Degas' primary interest for the next thirty years, although it waned briefly in the 1870s. Many scholars credit the work of E.J. Muybridge, whose photos were first reproduced in 1881 in Le Globe, as the reason for Degas’ return in earnest to the subject during the 1880s. Muybridge's photos, which were later published in full in the book Animal Locomotion from 1887, showed horses in motion and demonstrated that the animal’s front and hind legs were never extended at the same time during a gallop. These revelations influenced some of Degas’ later work, particularly his sculpture. Equestrian compositions eventually took their place among the most famous and popular subjects of his career, superceded only by his images of dancers.
Cheval de Selle reveals Degas' level of confidence with his subject and an advanced understanding of the horse’s musculature. While the present work is undated, the influence of Muybridge’s photos is evident; Degas’ carefully composed lines invest the horse with a sense of strength and energy and reflect Degas' keen observation of his subjects. The horse strides boldly towards the viewer, his head cocked to one side, one eye visible, nostrils slightly flaring. While the horse dominates the composition with its strong presence, the faint outlines of a rider’s legs is discernable. Degas is known to have revisited his drawings for use in connection with other compositions, and he repeated this rider's pose in later works.
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