Visual Arts

UK's ambitious equine exhibit corrals art from around the country

Artist Rembrandt Peale painted George Washington on a white horse. The painting is on loan from Hammond-Harwood House Association.
Artist Rembrandt Peale painted George Washington on a white horse. The painting is on loan from Hammond-Harwood House Association. Courtesy of Hammond-Harwood House Association

In the final weeks before the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, Lexington is facing a flurry of preparations to present its best face to the world. But one of the most impressive undertakings, a new exhibit at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, is finished and opens Sunday.

Hoofbeats and Heartbeats: The Horse in American Art is the result of many years of work to put together a comprehensive exhibit of the best works featuring the horse.

"This exhibition is the most ambitious exhibit ever put together by this museum," said Kathy Walsh-Piper, director of the museum.

The concept came up four years ago, shortly after the announcement that Lexington would host the Games.

"This show exists on many levels: for the Games, for the public and for art history," Walsh-Piper said.

The exhibition is significant because of its range of work, separated into four categories: the horse in battle, the horse as a symbol of freedom, the horse at work, and the horse in sport and leisure.

"Unbelievably, there had never been an exhibit on the horse in American art that showed the horse in art and history," Walsh-Piper said.

She talked about her idea with a colleague, Eleanor Jones Harvey, a Smithsonian Institution curator. Harvey put Walsh-Piper in touch with curator Ingrid Cartwright of Western Kentucky University.

At the time, Cartwright was in Washington, and Harvey thought of her because "she knew I was a horse person and an art historian," Cartwright said.

"We didn't want it to be just a show of pictures of horses," Cartwright said. "We wanted it to be a thoughtful examination of the horse in American art."

Putting the show together was a challenge, both in finding the work and in getting funding. The recession made it especially hard to get sponsors.

The work itself came from dozens of museums and private collectors from around the country.

"It was a year and a half just getting the loans out," said Janie Welker, curator of collections and exhibitions at the UK museum.

The working budget remained "in flux," Welker said, because of the high price of some of the paintings. One potential work in San Francisco was cut from the list because it would have cost $27,000 to borrow.

"Some of the work required 24-hour security, and some required couriers," Cartwright said.

Still, they were able to procure most of what they wanted for the show, with some of the work coming from "the best museums in the country," Cartwright said.

The work was reproduced in the catalogue for the exhibit, which adds pieces of interest such as old photos of the artists at work in their studios. The studio photos, with, say, the artists posing the model on a saddle and barrel or working on city rooftops "remind you that it is art, after all," Welker said.

Walsh-Piper said she hopes the catalogue will live beyond the show because "it is a contribution to art history."

The work in the show is important from a historical standpoint for several reasons. Many great artists are featured, many styles are represented, and dates of the work range from 1790 to 2003.

The older work shows American leaders posing on horses and riding them in battle. Rembrandt Peale's portrait of George Washington is one of many that show the heroes on a white horse, a classic art reference.

"There is a tradition of showing leaders on horses — it goes all the way back to ancient Rome," Cartwright said.

Another older work, a lithograph of the painting Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap by George Caleb Bingham, shows the scene in a way reminiscent of Renaissance paintings of the Holy Family. It also might speak of European settlers' "prevailing idea of manifest destiny," Welker said.

Continuing chronologically, the exhibit moves to the idea of the horse as a symbol of freedom.

"When you get into the American West, it's such a different feeling," Welker said, referring to the vibrant colors and movement in the works by Maynard Dixon and Charles Shreyvogel.

The section examining the horse at work is particularly interesting. For instance, in Lloyd Branson's The Hauling of Marble, the working horses are helping to build a city, not a place one usually pictures horses.

"They were so ubiquitous in daily life, and we're not used to seeing them depicted that way," Cartwright said.

The horse in sports and leisure brings the viewer to present-day works by contemporary artists. These themes were familiar to Cartwright, who grew up showing horses in Cincinnati and Lexington.

"It tells us a lot about what horses have meant in history," she said of the movement through the themes of the exhibition.

When the public, including the multitudes of visitors in Lexington for the Games, see the exhibit, "I hope they will be able to see the horse in art," Cartwright said, "and consider it in a way they haven't before."