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The Romantic Expression of the Horse
in 19th Century Literature and Art

By Diane S. Cattrell

The horse has inspired writers and artists throughout recorded time. Its depiction has been both an expression of beauty and a measure of the state and progress of man.  From early cave drawings to Assyrian reliefs, from exquisite Han Dynasty jade sculptures to noble medieval tapestry chargers, from the Jockey Club and thoroughbred society of Degas all the way to the present quintessential equine sculptures of Deborah Butterfield, art has presented the image of the horse.  What this image has expressed changes with the focus of time, yet the horse has remained inseparable from man as a symbolic element of something which is within the spirit of humanity.  Perhaps this is true because "Associated with life's pleasures - whether they involve a simple outing or a military victory - the horse is bound up with our misfortunes and failures."

This empathy between man and horse, in life and in emotion, is most apparent in the art and literature of the 19th Century.  In the poetry and painting of the Romantic period, the horse is presented both in its association with man and as a creature capable of symbolizing the essence of Romanticism.  The role of the horse as a Romantic representation is best illustrated in the works of Lord Byron and Eugene Delacroix.  Each uses the image of the horse as a central theme in their expressions of Romantic art. 

The image of the horse reflects the reality of society during the Romantic era.  Revolution and conquest require mobility and many poets and artists depicted the horse as a factual participant of the events of the time.  Such illustrations of the horse in battle are mere representations of historical fact, but the Romantic horse in battle transcends its physical reality.  The image of the horse embodies spirit: the freedom and power of the animal with the authority and control of the rider.  The visual image of the hero, whether written or painted, is elevated through the horse.  The common saying that "The outside of a horse is good for the inside of man" could be extended to include "and is good for man's outward appearance".  As an extension of its rider, the horse adds statue and nobility to the person astride it.  The symbiotic relationship between horse and rider is expressed by Byron in THE GIAOUR:

And, issuing from the grove, advance 
Some whom on battle-charger prance. 
I know him by his jet-black barb; 2

The rider is identified as the Giaour first by the appearance of his Arabian horse.  Inspired by Byron, Delacroix painted a similar extension of identity between rider and mount in THE GIAOUR AND THE PASHA.  The Giaour's black horse thrusts his head into the chest of the Pasha's animal just as the Giaour will thrust his blade into the Pasha's chest.  In this sharing of action and identity, the horse becomes the personification of a Romantic ideal; the sharing of the human spirit. 

The Romantic image of the horse is not limited to what man can express of himself, for the horse is a creature of nature, and like nature, cannot truly be possessed.  Byron and Delacroix both expressed the character of the horse as possessing qualities found in nature.  The horse "represented as aspect of nature - its sublime and threatening power on one hand, and its physical beauty on the other." 3   Like nature, the horse is both fearful in its power and violence, yet awe inspiring in the beauty of its form and motion.  This inspirational beauty is described by Delacroix in his journal entry of January 29, 1832:

The scene of the fighting horses.  From the start, they stood up and fought with a fierceness which made me tremble for those gentlemen, but it is really admirable for a painting.  I witnessed, I am certain, the most fantastic and graceful movements that Gros and Rubens could have imagined.  Then that gray got his neck around the other one.  For a time that seemed endless, it was impossible to make him let go.  Mornay managed to dismount.  While he was holding him by the bridle, the black reared furiously.  The other kept on fiercely biting him behind. In all this struggle the consul fell down.  We then let the two horses go; they kept on fighting each other as they got to the river, both falling into it as they continued fighting and at the same time trying to get out of the water; their feet slipped in the mud at the edge; they were all dirty and shiny, wet to the mane.  After repeated beatings, the gray let go his hold… 4

While modeled from real life, the Romantic horse is a vision: its beauty attracts, its power challenges, and its spirit mystifies.  The drama which Delacroix witnessed in the fighting Arabians in Morocco does not materialize in his painting as a single record of the event.  Instead, Delacroix expresses the scene through the violence of nature and the spirit capable of sustaining that violence in his numerous paintings of horses and tiger/lion hunts.  With variations of artistic interpretation, Byron and Delacroix rely on the image of the horse to symbolize nature and man's emotional response to it.  Their portrayals of the horse share many Romantic qualities, yet as personal expressions of a Romantic idealization, their works and equine images must be considered individually. 

Of all the Romantic poets, Lord Byron is regarded as the epitome of the Romantic spirit.  His personality and life style were as discussed as his poems; indeed, Byron encouraged the association of himself with his characters.  A comparison can also be made of his use of horse symbolism and his projection of self.  Byron presented the image of the horse in his work in three ways: as a tool to set the scene of Romantic imagination, as a personification of man's emotional and spiritual self to reveal the Romantic soul, and as an analogy of nature to explore the sublime.  In all these uses, the horse represents an extension of the human spirit, and as such, of Byron. 

In composing the scenes of his poetic adventures, Byron often portrayed the sea through equine imagery.  In CHILDE HAROLD'S PILGRIMAGE, he begins the Third Canto with Harold continuing his journey on the ocean:

Once more upon the waters! Yet once more! 
     And the waves bound beneath me as a steed 
     That knows his rider. Welcome to their roar! 5

The motion of the water equated with a spirited horse expresses the restlessness and excitement of the Romantic spirit.  Ocean and horse are joined as a single expression of nature to reveal man's emotions again at the close of Canto Four:

And I have loved thee, Ocean! And my joy 
     Of youthful sports was on they breast to be/ 
     And trusted to thy billows far and near, 
And laid my hand upon they mane - as I do here. 6

These images connect a sense of affection for nature through a feeling of appreciation of the horse.  But Byron also reveals the sublime.  The power of equus to set the scene of the Romantic imagination is obvious in there lines from THE GIAOUR:

Who thundering comes on blackest steed, 
With slackened bit and hoof of speed? 
Beneath the clattering iron's sound 
The caverned Echoes wake around 
In lash for lash, and bound for bound; 
The foam that streaks the courser's side 
Seems gathered from the ocean-tide: 
…      young Giaour! 7

Byron has actually combined all three functions of his horse imagery in this last stanza.  The scene, the man, and the fearful side of nature are all expressed in the presence of the lathered, galloping horse.  In fact, the use of equine symbolism is so pervasive in Byron's writing that multiple functions are often found.   Personification of the Romantic soul through the horse is expressed as disillusionment with the revolution in CHILDE HAROLD'S PILGRIMAGE, Canto Three:

Fit retribution! Gaul may champ the bit 
  And foam in fetters; - but is Earth more free? 
Did nations combat to make ONE submit? 
Or league to teach all Kings true Sovereignty? 8

Quite a different Romantic spirit is expressed in the bull-fighting scene of Canto One.  Here, man and horse strive together for glory and honor beyond the experience of the common man.  The Romantic zeal of the rider is assigned also to his horse; both possess a spirit that will not admit defeat.

Nor the wild plungings of the tortured horse;/ 
One gallant steed is stretched a mangled corse;/ 
His gory chest unveils life's panting source; 
Though death-struck, still his feeble frame he rears; 
Staggering, but stemming all, his LORD unharmed he bears. 9

Byron is merging the emotions of the man with the spirit of the horse in such symbolic representations.  The noble characters of both are enhanced through this association.  This shared nobility is carried to the Romantic extreme in a scene of death in LARA:

The war-horse masterless is on the earth, 
And that last gasp hath burst his bloody girth; 
And near, yet quivering with what life remained, 
The heel that urged him and the hand that reined; 
And some too near that rolling torrent lie, 
Whose waters mock the lips of those that dies; 10

Here the imagery of the horse sharing the rider's fate depicts not only an extension of man's desires; Byron's horse is an imitation of the passing on of man's soul.  In Romantic literature, symbolism of death combined with the image of the horse represents the physical and fearful power of nature.  In this form, the horse is attributed the Romantic elements of subliminal forces.  Byron's horse imagery synthesized the powers of nature and death.  He described the danger of nature in CHILDE HAROLD'S PILGIRMAGE, Canto One:

Hark! - heard you not those hoofs of dreadful note?/ 
Death rides upon the sulphry Siroc, 
Red Battle stamps his foot, and Nations feel the shock. 11

The straights of Gibraltar and the storm inducing winds (the Siroc) are natural forces beyond man's control, symbolized by the stamp of the death-horse's hoof. Man's dread of nature's ultimate power over him, and the Romantic fascination with death were again equine related in Canto Three:

The earth is covered thick with other clay 
Which her own clay shall cover, heaped and pent, 
Rider and horse, -friend, -foe, in one red burial blent! 12

Byron's consistent use of the image of the horse to formulate his poetic visions verifies its significance as a Romantic symbol.  The variety of connotations expressed by the horse in his poetry, from noble personification to the darker elements of black Romanticism, are treatments of this subject which are repeated in the visual arts in the paintings of Delacroix.  What Byron achieves with the horse in the mind of the reader, Delacroix creates on canvas for the eye of the viewer. He too presents three types of equine symbolism in his exploration of Romantic expression.  Like Byron, Delacroix used the horse to set the scene of the imagination and as an extension of the emotions of man.  Here the similarity ends, for in his depiction of the horse and nature, Delacroix deviates from the symbolic associations of Byron.  Byron's horse personified man's response to the terrors of nature; Delacroix's animal represents the terror itself.  Eugene Delacroix, considered the most Romantic artist of the 19th Century, painted in his horses a Romantic spirit which is independent of man. 

The scenes of the imagination painted by Delacroix were often inspired from literature.  The previously mentioned work, THE GIAOUR AND THE PASHA, was originally painted by Delacroix immediately after he had read the GIAOUR by Byron.  In fact, Delacroix himself spoke often of his inspiration from Romantic literature: "Keep in mind forever certain passages of Byron to excite your imagination…they suit you well." 13   Again in his journal he wrote: "What I need, then, in finding a subject is to open a book that can inspire me and let its mood guide me.  There are those that are never ineffective…Byron." 14   While the choice of the subject matter came from such literary inspiration, its execution satisfied an expression that was purely Delacroix.  The excited, artistic imagination created scenes of black Romanticism beyond the presentation in written verse, often by incorporating the image of the horse.  The drama and action were intensified by the form and motion of equine subjects.  Such an animal is part of the scene in the DEATH OF SARDANAPALUS of 1827, which was inspired by a work of Byron's of 1821.  The horse in the foreground is a figure of structural unification as it complements the motion of the painting.  The crest of its neck and the curve of its head and chest parallel the curved forms of the victims of the King's death orgy and the spiral twist from figures to funeral pyre.  The presence of the horse is also a contrast to the submissive horror of the inevitable death presented.  The figure of the horse is the only movement backward, or attempted escape out of the scene.  The tension of the straight rein pulls the viewer into the violence; the horse's resistance, yet forced participation personifies the emotional reluctance of the viewer to enter the scene.  Delacroix's mood in creation of this work seems driven by an amoral force not found in Byron's portrait of Sardanapalus.  The horse functions as a physical element of the painting and as an emotional one as well.  It is a mirror of Sardanapalus' soul, an element of dark Romanticism symbolizing the bestiality of man. 

Like Byron, Delacroix used themes of equine symbolism simultaneously.  The horses of the ABDUCTION OF REBECCA, and of the MASSACRE AT SCIO, are both structural devices and personifications of their riders.  In the ABDUCTION OF REBECCA, the restrained energy, the pawing and twisting of the equine form, mimic the emotional tension and physical struggle of its human counterparts.  The horse of the Turk in the MASSACRE AT SCIO, is as cold and indifferent to the human suffering as its master.  This equus image is more symbolic than life-like as this horse portrayed has no identity other than as an extension of the cruelty of man.  Delacroix recognized the importance of this symbolism: "My picture is acquiring a twist, an energetic movement that I must absolutely complete in it…. If my work loses its naturalness, it will become more beautiful and fruitful…." 15  As representations of the emotional and spiritual human elements, the equine form projects not its own beauty.  It mirrors instead the beauty - or horror - of man's subliminal power.  The horses of Delacroix are not limited to expressions of human personification. The scope of their symbolic representation is as vast as nature itself.  Following the Romantic tendency to depict the fearful power and awe inspiring beauty of nature, Delacroix was in fact representing a vigorous realism of subject in his figures of the horse.  Man's nature may be elevated through symbolic association with the power of the horse, but in his themes of nature, Delacroix used the horse as an independent outpouring of the spirit of equus.  He was attracted to the image of the horse as it represented nature because of its fantastic and graceful movements in acts of ferocity. This equine fascination is evident in numerous paintings of horses in life and death struggles with the romantic, big cats, such as in TIGER ATTACKING A HORSE, 1825-1828.  The horse in this painting exhibits terror, yet his angered expression, the pinned ears and bared teeth, suggests a fight between worthy opponents.  Delacroix was a master at conveying the self-possessed spirit. 

It is evident that Byron and Delacroix placed a great significance on the representation of equine imagery in their works.  One can interpret Byron's emphasis of the horse as a Romantic expression through the variety, repetition, and vividness of its appearance in his poetry.  Delacroix's works invite interpretation in a like manner, yet Delacroix gives us more.  The pictorial representation of the horse in his paintings is a visual affirmation of its symbolic importance; the writings of his journal record his own Romantic inclination towards the horse as an artist's subject.  Entry upon entry notes his keen interest: "I see some progress in my study of horses." 16,  "I must absolutely begin to draw horses. I must go to the stables every morning…" 17,   and "Gericault came to see me…Thence to the royal riding school, where I tarried to no great good." 18   Later entries, especially those written in Morocco, critique the horse as an artistic tool: "In the omnibus, when returning, I observed the effect of the half tone on the horses, bays and blacks, that is to say on shining skin.  One has to paint them in a mass, like the rest, with a local color midway between the highlight and the tone of warm color." 19  Delacroix is privileging the reader with a perspective from a painter's eye. His journal answers the questions of what and how in reference to the horse as a subject in his work; his paintings answer why. 

The poetry of Byron and the paintings of Delacroix share elements of a Romantic vision.  In the works of both, the expressions of that visionary spirit were embodied in the emotional presence of the Romantic horse in the 19th Century.



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