Equitation Theory and History » The Horse of Baroque Art: Fantasy or Ideal?

Van Diepenbeek’s equestrian illustrations are often dismissed as “less realistic” than artists such as Russell and Remington due to their almost perfect proportions. In fact, I suspect they more represent the real physical features of horses worked in a relatively collected academic posture.


Virtually every horse lover I know also relishes artwork portraying images of the horse. As a child, the only redeeming feature of grade-school was that, invariably, there was a library, and in that library were books – and some of them included pictures of horses.

Certainly the horse is presented most strikingly, prominently, and brilliantly among Renaissance and Baroque era works – particularly the magnificent Dutch and Flemish artists, such as Peter Paul Rubens.

Peter Paul Rubens: Tiger and Lion Hunt

As it turns out, Rubens has a particularly interesting, though inadvertent, relationship to the perpetuation of high equitation via William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle, who, during his exile subsequent to the overthrow of Charles I and prior to the restoration of Charles II, resided at Rubens’ former estate in Antwerp (which had also been designed by Rubens).

During this several year period of isolation and reflection, in the wake of losing virtually everything, and with little hope of redemption – Cavendish myopically retreated to his horses, and began writing the first of two manuals containing his opinions and observations surrounding horses and high horsemanship.

As a part of this effort, Cavendish commissioned the Dutch artist Arthur van Diepenbeek (a student of Rubens), to illustrate his manuals on horsemanship.  Van Diepenbeek’s style – especially in the portrayal of horses and landscapes – is unmistakably similar to his teacher’s.  In fact, as was customary at the time, he, along with other understudies, would have contributed to a number of paintings attributed to Rubens himself.

Not everyone has had the interest and opportunity to take an art history course, but most equestrians have at least a vague notion of the term “baroque” used as a descriptor of horses.  The term implies a visual impression of ample strength, but also grace and refinement – as opposed to the simpler, less glorious chunkiness of the draft horse.  Consider the impractical, relatively immobile bulkiness of the professional wrestler versus the inherently utilitarian (yet robust) physiques of ballet dancers, gymnasts, and martial artists.  The baroque horse is not too large, nor too small (though, in any case, “small” compared to the relatively behemoth modern warmblood). From his stout, powerful body emerge refined extremities, tapering to an expressive, elegant face, and strong, dry legs.

Now, in the world of art criticism, the term “Baroque” is used pejoratively by those who see it as genre portraying figures so idealized they become not only unrealistic, but also and improbably similar among artists – symbols, in essence.  And if everyone tries to portray only the idealized, perfect versions of everything, the meaning of particular works is reduced.  Taken to its extreme, artists are simply painting the same perfect icons, leaving little room for individual expression, interpretation, and imagination (which, of course, was very much the point from the perspective of Baroque era patrons who, for their money, wanted works as impressive as they were unambiguous).

An idealized image is merely an unlikely representation of particulars. While it is unlikely this or that person (or horse), was so exquisitely formed, this does not imply such perfection is impossible.  On the contrary, the very fact of Baroque forms is a compelling case that such perfect examples existed, else upon what basis would artists have modeled their figures? 

Tenable Ideal vs. Fantastic

During the Renaissance, Leonardo Da Vinci criticized Michelangelo’s fantastically musclebound supermen as resembling “bags of nuts” – going beyond the notion of portraying the artist’s ideal human figure, instead portraying, occasionally, anatomically impossible figures.

Is this a case of “the pot calling the kettle black”?  Not exactly.  Da Vinci is known to have been morally concerned with accuracy – at least in terms of the possible. In this case, the ‘pot’ has produced images bearing some utility, if people in the future want to understand how things may have looked in the past – whereas the kettle has fantasized.

To illustrate the notion: If I were having a portrait of myself painted to impress my peers and future generations, I might prefer my appearance be skewed a bit towards the, say, the Brad Pitt side of the house.  It would need to be recognizably “me”, but maybe a little more in the shoulders; perhaps a little help with my increasingly uncertain hairline.  Worst case, the artist flatters me and goes too far in the direction of Mr. Pitt.  My family smirks when they see it.  Still, Brad Pitt exists, and therefore is valid as a “tenable ideal”.  The portrait may be of little value coming to a precise determination of how Henry Fleming looked (particularly in the absence of other portraits, by other artists), but will at least represent what a lucky few men looked like in my day.

Had the artist used He-Man as a basis for his idealization (or, in the case of a female, Barbie), he would have gone far beyond the realm of tenable ideals.  The portrait would be worthless later in terms of providing a sense for how even the handsomest men looked, because the dimensions of He-Man are (at least so far) beyond the pale of genetic selection.  The figure is not simply unlikely, it is impossible.

DaVinci, Rubens, Diepenbeek:  Tenable Idealists

To assimilate these various threads on approach to my reluctantly impending premise:

Da Vinci’s style, work, and moral commitment to the accurate presentation of beautiful forms (in terms of presenting a tenable representation) was later greatly admired by Rubens.

Van Diepenbeek was an apprentice of Rubens, and presumably inherited much of his master’s “artistic morality”, if you will, in addition to his artistic technique and style.  So, while we can rely on Van Diepenbeek to bring the prettiness and visual optimism which typify Rubens and the Baroque era, we may also presume he retains a “DaVincian” commitment to accuracy with respect to conveying  at least tenable forms – even though particular subjects may have been themselves more or less only proximate to “the ideal” model.

This distinction is essential, because in Van Diepenbeek’s case – certainly with respect to his work for Newcastle, his equine figures become even more constrained to reality, emerging as they did under the scrutiny of one of the most passionate, knowledgeable horsemen in history – a fact likely to have pushed these particular Van Diepenbeek illustrations even more towards Da Vinci’s end of the artistic “accuracy” spectrum, and further away from the “bag of nuts” risk for which Baroque art has been criticized.

Van Diepenbeek’s realistic, tenable portrayal of Newcastle (from Newcastle’s A New Method) suggests we can rely upon a certain degree of accuracy and intent among his interpretations of Newcastle’s horses.


Leave a Reply