The catalog from the Cross Gate Gallery’s annual Sporting Art Auction (The Sporting Art Auction) on Nov. 21, 2021, is a veritable feast for my senses. This year, the auction features 192 lots that includes paintings, sculptures, and an unusual collection of cigarette card dog studies. The showstopper is the 19th Century weathervane of the Thoroughbred Lexington, complete with bullet holes piercing it.
Perusing the catalog, I found myself returning to the paintings of British artist John Frederick Herring Sr. (1795-1865). Why were the horses in “Horses and Pigeons at a Stable Door” so familiar? The answer was right in front of me hanging on my living room wall. Herring also painted “Pharaoh’s Chariot Horses” in 1848. The similarities between the paintings include the dark muzzles, the profound soft eyes, the veined and chiseled faces, and an inquisitive nature. Herring began his career as a sign maker for inns and painted coach insignias and even worked as a night coach driver. As his career expanded, he was sponsored by the Duchess of Kent and received a patronage from Queen Victoria.
Peter Max gives us the spirit of speed in his “Kentucky Derby, 2000” featuring a Thoroughbred and jockey depicted in crisp oranges, reds, and yellows. Fusaichi Pegasus and Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux won the 2000 Kentucky Derby wearing similar colors. Max is well known for his bold and colorful depictions and has been an official artist of the Kentucky Derby. With the iconic Twin Spires behind them, the horse and jockey feature large brush strokes. It easily evokes fleetness!
Richard Stone Reeves takes one into the Kentucky countryside with his eye-catching painting “Three Kings, Claiborne Farm (Nijinsky II, Spectacular Bid, & Secretariat). Reeves’ mother owned racehorses and he lived near Belmont Park. He is known as one of the finest American Equine artists. When asked about the horses in ‘Three Kings,’ he said, “Perhaps Nijinsky II could be considered one of the six best horses I have ever painted.” He said that Spectacular Bid “was a very good-looking horse. He posed very well, and he handled well.” His highest praise went to Secretariat whom he painted with groom Bobby Anderson. “From all perspectives, Secretariat was the very essence of the ideal Thoroughbred. I don’t remember an easier or more rewarding subject to paint.”
The road that each artist travels to success is varied. British-born artist Mike Austin began his career as an artist for Marvel Comics, 2000 AD, and the Sunday Times. As his career grew, HRH The Prince of Wales named Austin as a tour artist on official visits. Austin paints using a “Wet-in-wet” technique (where the artist applies a new layer of oil paint on top of a still wet layer) using only a limited palette of four colors (Yellow, white, ultramarine and magenta.) In “Equus III,” he features a horse head floating in a cerulean background. The horses’ facial features have extraordinary detail with ears forward, soft eyes and a relaxed countenance.
He has a special passion for painting horses. “The equine head especially is an artist’s and sculptor’s delight. The prominent, solid nose bone so pronounced, softened by the always blowing silky nose; the taught tension of the tendons and muscles, a feast of expression and twiddley bits for the artist’s brush and an intelligence and empathy so easily seen in the eyes.”
American artist Diana Tremaine was influenced by the modern art collection of her relatives. Her painting style is a unique juxtaposition of space and color. She uses a layering process over a neutral background. “I find paint compelling the way it sits on the canvas and on top of itself. It’s just beautiful to me.” She uses a palette knife or squeegee to pull the paint through itself to create a space and leaves some of the first brushstrokes in the painting.
Her use of color, brush strokes, and space in her painting of a large chestnut horse titled “Presence” uses this technique. She explains, “A champion knows he is such. He knows how audiences yearn to be near him, to touch his flesh, to breathe in his unwavering confidence. He knows he inspires awe. Even at rest, his presence suggests an awareness of sunlight rippling over his muscles describing in one fell swoop his power and greatness. This effable spirit is the inspiration behind ‘Presence.’ ”
The Wickham Horse Fair in Great Britain is a historic event that dates to 1269, attracting thousands of visitors. It involves horse trading and parades. British artist Susie Whitcombe’s painting “Black and White Mare, Wickham Horse Fair” is a delightful depiction of a young man sitting bareback on a draft cross mare. Her mane is festooned in ribbons, and he is using a simple halter to guide her. Whitcombe is known to “paint from life which gives her picture the delightful energy, movement, and joie de vivre for which they are so widely known.” She is a founding member of the Society of Equestrian Artists and is an experienced pilot with a passion for fast cars.
Affable New Zealand artist Peter Williams (1934-2018) was a regular fixture in the Keeneland and Churchill Downs paddock. Quite the personality, he often referred to himself as an unemployed New Zealand sheep herder. He welcomed visitors while he painted. He was known as a painter who “painted from life.” He was welcomed at all major international tracks. However, he had a soft spot for Keeneland. “There’s no track that has a more wonderful ambiance than Keeneland.” At the end of a video interview, he modestly said “My name is Peter Williams, and I am attempting to immortalize Keeneland.” He most certainly did with his painting “Keeneland Outriders.”
American artist Jaime Claire Corum is a Kentucky native who has been blessed with a lifetime of hands-on experience with horses. Her painting “Tess and Maude” was inspired by her love of artist George Stubbs and the portrayal of a “horse very well turned out against a traditional English landscape.” They represent animals that she has known but is not a literal portrait.
“They are more idealized and made more dramatic by my choice to make Tess (the mare) such a ‘bright’ dappled gray and Maude, the whippet, so very delicate next to her. I love the stillness of the poses of both horse and dog and the way the subjects are portrayed in a realistic, yet almost a stylized way. I adore celebrating detail in the tack and blanket on the horse and the ornate collar on the whippet. Whenever possible, I love to use the traditional Newmarket stripes, however this one has been changed slightly from the traditional gold, red, and black to a dark navy, red, and gold as I saw on a Hermes cooler.”
Corum’s painting “L’Automne (Fall)” is the second in her series of the Four Seasons. The painting “celebrates the beauty and introspective/reflective mood of fall through a color scheme of soft browns, siennas, and blues and grays. I had so much fun designing the tapestry and selecting my equine model [a gorgeous bay warmblood with soulful eyes] for this piece. I wanted to celebrate the rich, but subtle beauty of fall with a tapestry of interwoven branches, leaves, flowers, and berries, featuring an interplay of hawks and doves throughout. A fall landscape of trees, sky, and reflecting water provides the backdrop to horse and tapestry, and if you look closely even weaves into the tapestry in subtle ways.”
The Sporting Art Auction allows us to celebrate our love of horses. The catalog always gives me a moment to set aside and revel in seeing the world through the eyes and talent of gifted artists. There is no end to the strength and beauty of the horse. That is the blessing and the power of art.