'Le Michel-Ange de la Ménagerie' was the tribute given to Barye by the celebrated French art critic Théophile Gautier. Considered the inventor and undisputed master of animalier sculpture, Barye used animal subjects to represent the extremes of power and emotion which were central to the Romantic movement, thereby challenging the accepted hierarchy of subject matter in the French artistic establishment. The Cheval turc is generally regarded as the model which most powerfully epitomises his unique sculptural vision.
Barye was a student of François-Joseph Bosio, a favourite sculptor of the Napoleonic court. He continued his studies under the painter Antoine-Jean Gros, the successor of neo-classicist Jacques-Louis David. But perhaps the most formative studies Barye undertook were his own visits to the Paris zoo, the Jardin des Plantes, where he sketched the animals directly from nature. As an emblem of Romanticism the Cheval turc finds its painted counterpart in Delacroix's canvases, for example in the rearing horse in his Massacre at Chios in the Louvre, Paris.
Infused as it is with the Romantic spirit of Barye's own age, the Cheval turc also recalls the Antique equestrian group of Marcus Aurelius and the Renaissance precedent of Leonardo's drawings of a rearing horse, studies for a monument to Francesco Sforza which was never erected. As a talented draughtsman Barye produced thousands of drawings and the strong silhouettes of his compositions, particularly evident in the present model, derive from his draughtsman's sense of shape and profile which he expertly transposed into three dimensions. The Cheval Turc triumphantly presents Barye's supreme grasp of anatomy and drama and, as the author of the 1844 Besse catalogue wrote, 'the only feeling that one can experience upon seeing it is a deep admiration both for one of nature's most noble creatures and the talent of its delineator'.
The success of the Cheval Turc persuaded Barye to issue four different versions of the model, two with rectangular bases (as in the present example) and with either front right or left leg raised, and two with oval bases, again with front right or left leg raised. Cheval turc No. 2 was, in fact, the first model edited, with Cheval turc No. 1, a slightly less stylised model, being offered as a new model in 1874. Created circa 1840, the present design is described as Cheval marchant in the 1844 Besse catalogue, and the variants with front right and left leg raised respectively are presented as pendants in Barye's 1860 catalogue.
M. Poletti and A. Richarme, Barye. Catalogue raisonné des sculptures, Paris, 2000, no. A128, pp. 265-266; W. R. Johnston, S. Kelly, Untamed: The Art of Antoine-Louis Barye, Munich, London and New York, 2006, no. 57, pp. 158-9