Derby Traditions: Twelve Memorable Equestrian Images in Art

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The first Saturday in May brings with it classic Derby traditions – the festive hats, roses, mint juleps and, of course, the racehorses. Sentient Jet, the preferred aviation partner of the Kentucky Derby and a longtime supporter of horse racing, is now offering Derby Air, a luxury travel experience for Cardholders flying to and from the most exhilarating race of the year. Sentient Jet Clients will be welcomed to an exclusive Derby Day Breakfast with Bobby Flay, as well as enjoy access to the Sentient Jet Jockey Club Suite and the invite-only Mansion at Churchill Downs. In honor of this grand horse racing tradition, click ahead for a selection of twelve memorable equestrian images in the history of art. 

Derby Traditions: Twelve Memorable Equestrian Images in Art

  • John Frederick Herring, Sr., The Doncaster Gold Cup, 1825. Estimate $300,000-500,000.
    A devoted and skillful recorder of the history of the turf in the nineteenth century, John Frederick Herring, Sr. painted the present scene of the 1825 Doncaster Cup race, the most sought-after prize in its day. Central to the composition is Lottery, a celebrated English thoroughbred and the Cup’s winner that year, jockeyed by G. Nelson.

  • Franz Marc, Weidende Pferde III (Grazing Horses III) , 1910. Sold by Sotheby’s London for 12,340,500 GBP (24,376,190 USD).
    Franz Marc’s lyrical depictions of horses were the artist’s most significant compositions and meant as a celebration of harmony with nature. Weidende Pferde III was painted in the Bavarian countryside, where Marc moved in the spring of 1910. Four equestrian figures are rhythmically conveyed, grazing in a field. Channeling German Expressionist techniques, dabs of greens, yellows and blues create the sensation of swirling movement. 

  • A Pair Of Magnificent Sancai-Glazed Pottery Horses, Tang Dynasty. Sold by Sotheby’s New York for 4,197,000 USD.
    A rare pair of complementary Sancai-glazed horses, these imperious and muscular horses are distinguished by their rich and distinct colourings.  One strikingly black horse, with a cream-coloured bald marking his muzzle, tilts his neck, his white mane falling in coiffed waves. The other, with hogged mane, is glazed a chestnut hue with the cream undertones of a Strawberry Roan, the rarest breed depicted in Tang Dynasty pottery. Both stand with nostrils flared and teeth revealed, wearing unique green saddles, and conveying elegance, grace and strength. 


  • Henry Stull, Leonatas, Winner of the 1883 Kentucky Derby, 1886.
    Lauded for his depictions of racehorses, in this painting, Stull memorialized winners of the ninth Run of the Roses, jockey Billy Donahue and his steed Leonatus. Donahue was so confident his horse that he bet his life savings on the race. Following three days of rain, on the clear afternoon of 23 May, 1883, the pair rode through heavy mud to victory.


  • Theodore Gericault, Cheval de Napoleon, circa 1813. Sold by Sotheby’s New York for 1,968,000 USD. 
    Grand-scale history painter Theodore Géricault devoted much of his career to accurately portraying the demeanor and form of horses. According to tradition, the horse represented was one belonging to Napoleon, and was probably painted while the artist worked in the Imperial stables at Versailles. The success of Géricault’s equestrian paintings comes from his ability to capture the individuality of each animal. Unburdened by historical narrative, here Géricault conveys the simple majesty of this refined stallion, which had carried France’s revolutionary leader. 


  • Diamond and Emerald ‘Horse’ Bracelet, Cartier. Sold by Sotheby's Hong Kong for 812,500 HKD (104,764 USD).
    Equine forms have adorned fine jewellery since ancient times, dating as far back as the New Kingdom reign of Ramses II in Egypt, circa the 13th century BC. This glittering Cartier bracelet continues the tradition with six pavé-set circular-cut diamond horses, embellished with emerald eyes, wrapping around the wrist as though in motion. 

  • Edgar Degas, Cheval se cabrant, conceived circa 1880s. Sold at Sotheby’s New York for 2,210,500 USD.
    Cast from a wax model created in the 1880s, this vivid bronze is considered among the most brilliant of Degas’ racehorse depictions.  Full of dynamic energy, the front hooves are raised as the horse rears back. The textured surface of the bronze emulates the play of light and shadow on the horse’s body. Degas made over a dozen equestrian sculptures, in addition to numerous paintings and drawings of racehorses, jockeys and surrounding festivities. This popular 19th century sport allowed Degas to bring the age-old tradition of equestrian portraiture to modern life.

  • Eadweard Muybridge, Sequential Motion Study, Horse And Rider, 1881. Sold at Sotheby’s New York for 15,000 USD.
    A contemporary of Degas, Eadweard Muybridge’s motion study photographs were radically influential to artists and scientists alike, capturing the nuances of locomotion imperceptible to the naked eye. In 1872, Muybridge was hired by Leland Stanford (the founder Stanford University) to prove through photography that there is a moment while running when all of a horse’s legs are off the ground. This albumen print of a horse and rider is from Muybridge's The Attitude of Animals in Motion, a 203 plate series printed by the artist. Only two complete sets are known. 

  • Deborah Butterfield, Setsuko, 1994. Sold by Sotheby’s New York for 468,500 USD.
    Deborah Butterfield creates the casts for her bronze sculptures from downed branches, which she carefully selects and assembles to form her highly individualized horses. Each branch is a dynamic line, which additively create the figure. Gestural and three-dimensional drawings, the sculptures capture the sense of wonder and fascination with horses that has captivated artist from childhood. 


  • The Throne Verse (Ayat Al-Kursi) In The Form Of A Calligraphic Horse, India, Deccan, Bijapur, Circa 1600. Sold at Sotheby’s London for 2,057,250 GBP (3,363,604 USD).
    In this calligraphic treasure, one of the most popular verses of the Qur’an, the Throne Verse, is transcribed in elegant, looping gold lettering, placed cleverly within the figure of a prancing horse. The verse, which speaks of God’s infinite nature, begins at the horse’s head, wends through the body and culminates in the raised hoof.  It is rare for a calligraphic inscription to be portrayed as an animal form. In the exhibition catalogue for Calligraphy in the Arts of the Muslim World , scholar Anthony Welch suggests that the horse symbolises the all-knowing and unending nature of God, as described in the verse, while the diminutive rider represents the human soul. 

  • Fernando Botero, Man On A Horse, 1999. Sold at Sotheby’s New York for 1,824,500 USD.
    Since antiquity the equestrian image has symbolised heroism and the power of the state. Botero’s monumental Man on a Horse upends these associations, offering instead a sense familiarity, humor and tenderness between a man and his loyal horse. In Botero Sculpture art historian Edward J. Sullivan, writes, “Botero's use of the figure of the horse is something akin to Cervantes' use of the nag Rocinante in Don Quixote. Downtrodden and worn out, the horse is the constant companion of man in his journeys and travails…Botero's equally affectionate evocations of all his various animals remind us that he thinks of these creatures as integral to his own personal universe." 


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