Horses don’t run like rabbits—they don’t hop; but you wouldn’t think artists knew that, even real horse lovers and good observers like Leonardo da Vinci.
Or George Stubbs, an eighteenth-century horse specialist, who showed his race-horses scampering over green English lawns in a way he knew they didn’t, they couldn’t.
Even in 1878 when Muybridge came out with his famous photographic studies of a horse’s gallop, proving that the traditional artist’s rendering was nonsense, painters went right on showing horses flying through the air like cows jumping over the moon. Here is a painting by Degas who had seen the Muybridge photos and pretended not to.
Why did all these artists insist on perpetuating the error? Couldn’t they find a compromise between truth and beauty?
When you sit on a galloping horse, it FEELS as though you fly—that your horse is constantly jumping into the air, its legs spread out in front and behind, all four hooves off the ground. It is the most exciting moment of a ride. A horse shown diving into the air also transmits the feeling of excitement and speed better than any other. Aesthetically it is also the most satisfying because of the symmetry. In all the other phases of the gallop the legs are messy, apparently disorganized.
So much for aesthetics.
In fact, few of those experts, artists or otherwise, probably knew that the pose was a fiction. Muybridge’s photos proved that everyone was wrong—those who claimed the horse constantly dived through the air and those who contended that there was no moment when its feet were all off the ground. The photos showed that the horse did indeed jump into the air but when it did so its legs were all tucked UNDER its body, not stretched out ahead. THAT was the moment the rider felt he was flying.
Once the truth was out, realist artists could no longer do hopping horses with a good conscience. Of course there were still plenty of artists who thought a horse galloping should look the way it feels, science be damned. “We aren’t painting a real horse galloping but the IDEA of a horse galloping,” they said.
“Well, when I make a horse,” said Frederick Remington, the American artist, “I don’t turn him into a cat.” And he painted and sculpted horses in all the real phases of a gallop, a trot, and a canter.
“He runs like a dog,” said the merry-go-round horse makers. “Do you think that’s pretty?”