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Artistic liberties

June 9, 2021 0 Comments
Cerbero by Johann Georg von Hamilton, 1725

This post first appeared on August 20, 2011
I am often amused by horse books – often those about colored horses – that point to old art work as proof that this or that color has a long history. Perhaps because I am an artist working in a field where success is often measured by the accuracy with which color can be rendered, I am all too familiar with how this can go wrong. It is a lot easier to be sure that the Pech Merle cave paintings portray appaloosas when you haven’t looked at many artist’s first attempts at painting a dapple grey!

I thought of this again when I was in Germany and came upon these illustrations from a 13th century book of love poetry. Why such pictures were hanging in the Medieval Torture Museum, right along with the comfy chair, I cannot guess!

I suspect that the artists intended to depict dapple greys with most of these polka-dotted horses. Certainly that seems the most logical explanation for the blue ones at least. Just what the yellow ochre pony with the white dots is supposed to be is open to speculation. Is he a dappled palomino? Some kind of brownish horse turning grey? Or were dapples the craze all those centuries ago, just as they once were with equine collectibles, so that they were added to just about any body color whenever the horse needed to be made more special? Were there thirteenth century equine art fans bemoaning the fact that the illuminators just couldn’t leave a plain color alone?

Maybe that could explain the white dots on the very red horse in the background of this illustration, as well as those on the gray (mostly covered with trappings) and the taupe pony.

These pictures illustrate the problem with using art to assess horse color in distant times. Our modern perspective makes it tempting to say that the taupe pony is evidence that silver dapple must have existed in Germany at the time. It is a color we associate with ponies, and he does look small relative to his rider. Unlike the other horse in the same series, he is taupe and not golden brown. Yet he matches the brown on the ground, just as the previous one matches the falcons. It might mean nothing. Likewise the size of the rider relative to the horse might not be intentional, or might be used to indicate something other than the size of his mount. We can only guess.

All artists take liberties, and most are influenced by the conventions adopted by their colleagues. This can skew an entire era of work in such a way that it distorts reality. (When it was still published, The Boat had a wonderful set of articles on painting conventions prevalent in equine collectibles. Excerpts can be seen herehere and here.) A good example of this in historical equine art is the seventeenth and eighteenth century depiction of horse form, which can be seen in von Hamilton painting at the top of this post.

Artists of that era tend to distort horses in a fairly predictable way. The accuracy and detail with which the color is rendered, however, is striking. Note the cat tracks and the isolated roan patch on Cerbero, for instance.)

Yet even when horse color is rendered with such precision, it can be hard to know what liberties were taken – or what gaps in knowledge had to be filled in. That brings us back to yesterday’s post on the Royal Creams. Artists frequently painted the Creams. A print of this one hangs in the foyer of my home.

Adonis by James Ward, 1826

Adonis is usually referred to as a Hanover White, which were bred alongside the Creams in the early days of the Royal Stud. In the painting he has blue-green eyes. Was that accurate? Part of why the nature of the dilution carried by the Creams has remained a mystery is that there are so many conflicting stories about their eye color, so the eye color on a horse like Adonis is particularly interesting. Did the artist know the eye color? The painting was made six years after the death of his owner, King George III, so it is possible that he was only working from descriptions. Maybe the color wasn’t important to anyone, and the artist just liked how the blue picked up the tones in the background.

Beauty, another of King George III’s horses

Is that why this Cream, another stallion owned by King George III, has golden eyes? Certainly the artist took liberties with the size of the eyes, as many artists did at the time. Could he have done the same with the color?

As much as I love historical artwork, and find myself searching it for clues about historical colors, it is not an absolutely reliable witness.

By lkathman

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