As I drove away from the Headley-Whitney Museum on Old Frankfort Pike last week, I had to swerve around a minivan with Michigan plates stopped in the road. Its occupants apparently were fascinated by the young horses and their mothers standing along the fence.
Lexington residents see horses all the time, but they are a novelty for most Americans. A century ago, horses and their images were everywhere.
That's one idea behind the Headley-Whitney's new exhibit, The Horse in Decorative and Fine Art, which opened earlier this month and continues until December.
While planning for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games this fall, museum executives decided they wanted to show visitors the diversity of equine art, especially pieces held in Kentucky collections.
The result is an eclectic exhibit of works that show the special relationship between man and horse. The exhibit ranges from modern paintings, sculpture and fine jewelry to a horse carved in stone more than 5,000 years ago.
Pieces were borrowed from 16 Kentucky museums and collections, 27 private collectors and seven out-of-state institutions, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Museum of American History, The Jockey Club in New York, and the Harness Racing Museum in Goshen, N.Y.
"There's something here for almost everyone, from the serious collector of equine art to people who are just interested in horses and horse culture," said Sarah Henrich, the museum's executive director.
The exhibit's most notable element is the largest group of paintings ever assembled by 19th-century artist Thomas J. Scott. Many were painted in Kentucky, and they show several prominent racehorses of that age. The best example is Scott's 1857 portrait of the great sire Lexington. The portrait is on loan from the Smithsonian.
The itinerant Scott was a well-known and prolific equine artist and journalist in his day, but he was almost forgotten after his death in 1888. His legacy is being rediscovered thanks to two Kentuckians, Gordon Burnette of Lexington and Genevieve Baird Lacer of Shelbyville.
Burnette began researching Scott several years ago after finding one of his paintings on the curb in a recently deceased neighbor's trash. He teamed up with Lacer, the biographer of Scott's well-known teacher, Edward Troye, to find out more about Scott and track down his surviving work. They recently published a catalog of Scott's known work. The catalog is for sale at the museum and some local bookstores.
Burnette recently found the only known photograph of Scott.
"I know there are hundreds of his paintings out there that we don't know about, and a lot of them are probably still around Lexington," Burnette said. "I hope this exhibit raises awareness of Scott and more come forward."
What makes this Headley-Whitney exhibit fascinating is the range and variety of the pieces. Arranged among paintings, sculpture, jewelry and elegant silver racing trophies are a lot of surprises.
There is a horse-themed quilt made in Warren County in 1882 that is in pristine condition, and a child's homemade hobby horse from Maysville "that was obviously well loved," curator Amy Gundrum Greene said.
There is a Currier and Ives lithograph of a horse scene, its original pencil-sketch study, and a quiz that visitors can take to find 10 differences between the first draft and the finished work. Other printed images of horses range from a 1505 engraving by the famous German artist Albrecht Dürer to a John Wayne movie poster from the 1950s.
One display case contains carefully colored drawings of Western Indian horses by 19th-century Native American children who were taken from their families to be "civilized" in a Pennsylvania boarding school. "It was their way of working out what was going on in their lives," Greene said.