The Feeling Horse

Madeleine (Maddy) Fratarcangelo is a sophomore at Syracuse University. She is majoring in sculpture and minoring in classical piano performance. She enjoys playing Dungeons and Dragons on the weekends, drinking coffee, and listening to podcasts.

I remember how jarring it was the first time I saw a mounted police officer trotting down 42nd street among the honking taxis of New York. It felt like two worlds colliding in a near comical way. Not only did it seem to me like an inefficient and expensive mode of transport — I saw it as a representation of our country’s habit of clinging to expired traditions out of a sense of blind sentimentality. And perhaps my first opinion wasn’t completely inaccurate. While statistics might suggest the comparable effectiveness of mounted forces to other forms of policing, I discovered what truly makes the mounted officers unique: their public image. Mounted officers appear more trustworthy, more capable, and more approachable than their vehicled counterparts. According to one New York Police Officer, “Nobody ever tried to pet my police car, but they line up to pet my horse” (Cooper, 2011). The public trusts these officers more, and are more likely to report suspicious activity to a mounted officer rather than to one on foot. But why is this?

   Flashback 200 years ago to the turn of the nineteenth century in Europe — at the cusp of the Romantic Era of French Art. Think of the famous 1805 oil painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, the original version of, which currently resides in the Château de Malmaison in France. The oil painting features the small emperor clad in garish military regalia, in the midst of climbing his way through the Alps atop a rearing horse. The epitome of the “equestrian portrait” genre during that time, the picture went on to become the most reproduced image of Napoleon. The painting fell easily into the “mainstream” — it was very well-received by the public and given a stamp of approval by the French Academy of Fine Arts, the “who’s-who” of art in France during the time. The painting’s popularity reflected what the public wanted and what the government approved of. It was propaganda at its best. David chose to depict Napoleon mounted, and though the horse takes up more visual space than even Napoleon himself, the animal is more a prop than a character, a visual tool to accentuate Napoleon’s strength and regal pose. The horse is frightened, the whites of its eyes exposed and its mouth agape in stark comparison to the emperor’s composure and stern expression. We are made to think: Napoleon has the control here — control over the horse and the situation. In this portrait, David carefully defines Napoleon’s public image through a series of visual signs that emphasize the emperor as masculine, capable, and intelligent. Napoleon cuts an intimidating figure, here — almost cold. Not necessarily one I would feel inclined to approach, but one that I would trust to defend my nation. And the horse, in the end, blends into the background alongside the mountains and stormy sky.

   But the use of the horse makes sense here. In the early nineteenth century, animals were simply utilitarian. Transportation modes were limited at best, and so horses, mules, and bulls fulfilled the need to move as efficiently as possible. And that bled into their depiction in art. Napoleon’s horse isn’t a figure we are meant to sympathize with, and it isn’t included to make Napoleon seem more personable. Just the opposite, in fact. It emphasizes Napoleon’s authority and power.

   It wasn’t until Romanticism began to truly flourish years later that artists became interested in their ability to deploy nature to mirror human emotion. Animals exist in a sensate world, unobstructed by human rules and regulations. Because of this, animals can become vehicles for exploring primal fears and emotions that human beings are taught to suppress or ignore. As for the Romantics, the horse especially became a unique “image of superhuman energy” (Vaughn, 238). Imbued with the wild and untameable instincts of a beast, yet elegant and noble, the horse emerged as one of the most popular subjects for the animalier — or “animal painter” in nineteenth-century France (Vaughn, 256).

   Enter Eugène Delacroix, one of the most famous French Romantic artists. Intensely interested in “images of suffering, insanity, violence, and imminent death,” Delacroix often depicted different human states in a startling manner highly contrary to the accepted styles of the French Academy at that time (Art Institute of Chicago). His emphasis on the horse as a subject in his paintings and lithographs exemplify his interest in the Sublime. For the Romantics, and for Delacroix especially, nature was the ultimate source of the Sublime. It was in nature that one witnessed something that left the viewer so shaken in equal parts awe and terror that one was utterly consumed by nature’s impact. And for Delacroix, no part of nature better epitomized the Sublime than the horse, due to its “capacity for human terror” (Open Learn).

   A beautiful example of the Sublime intermingled with the mysterious— so crucial to Romanticism—is Delacroix’s print, Wild Horse or Frightened Horse Leaving the Water in the collection of the Syracuse University Art Galleries. The black and white image is highly reminiscent of a graphite drawing and features a single horse startled by an unspecified noise. It also appears to be placed within an atmospheric nightscape. Delacroix’s near-erratic use of line solidly breaks away from the careful styles accepted by the Royal Academy, and yet elegantly captures the horse’s sense of panic and motion as it swiftly exits the body of water, startled by some noise beyond the confines of the paper. Our attention is solely on the horse caught in the middle of this conflict. We are unsure if it is about to escape or be eaten as Delacroix depicts this unresolved moment between life and death. No longer is the horse a one-dimensional prop for some piece of Napoleonic propaganda. Gone is any trace of “glorious” mankind — and yet, the human experience permeates throughout. We are afraid for the horse because we sympathize with its fear. Delacroix projects the human experience onto this animal. He emphasizes its vulnerability by removing all traces of the horse as a symbol of masculinity and prestige, while still referencing the animal’s power in the careful consideration of muscle and tendon. Delacroix revisited the horse as a symbol of the Sublime over and over again in prints like his Lion Devouring a Horse (1844), Wild Horse Brought Down by a Tiger (1828), and Fallen Horse and Dead Knight (1827-29).

   By dismantling the horse as a symbol of man’s power over nature and intrinsic dominance, and instead emphasizing the similarities between human and animal, perhaps Delacroix was criticizing the trends of propaganda art so popular in France at the time. John Steuart Curry is an artist who felt a similar resentment towards propaganda art. He borrowed the very Romantic trend that Delacroix used of horses as vehicles for the Sublime in his 1930 lithograph Horses Running Before a Storm featuring another black and white scene of a cloudscape. A massive fork of lightning touches down in a vast field behind four startled horses racing away from the storm brewing in the distance. It is interesting to see almost exactly a century later, another artist from a completely different background carrying on the Romantic tradition of depicting horses as exemplars of the Sublime – majestic and graceful, yet vulnerable and easily frightened.

   In Delacroix’s time, industrialization was just beginning to take hold in Europe. For people living in the nineteenth century, the future boasted a system of transportation reliant on steam powerrather than horsepower. As Romanticism slowly began to set the visual guidelines for art in France and the Sublime became of greater interest to the public, the horse’s role in society also shifted. No longer an unfeeling animal separated from human experience, the horse would become a mirror through which humanity saw its own flaws, strengths, and fears. Furthermore, in today’s automated world, horseback riding is very much a remnant of the past — now considered more of a hobby or a ceremonial procedure than a viable method of transport. Horses generally represent some untamed and noble part of nature that we as humans have lost over the years.

   Back to those streets in New York where horse mounted officers make their way through the crowds. What remains of the romantic equine notions of the Sublime? Why do we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to fund a police group founded on an outdated and seeming efficient mode of transportation? Police cars are less expensive, but are dead, metal objects. They are man-made, and perhaps we project some of man’s own arrogance onto the car when we see it driving down the street. But a horse is a living, breathing, animal — and a relationship with a horse is not simply one of ownership. Officers spend months in rigorous training in order to learn the skills and craft a bond with the animal they are riding. And those bonds are taken into account very seriously when matching an officer with his mount. There is a trust between animal and human that carries weight, especially since we are very much still attached to the romantic idea that horses themselves are moral and majestic creatures. The process of matching with a steed requires dedication, patience, and even love towards the animal. If an officer is cruel to the animal, they won’t earn its trust. And the public knows this.

   The sight of an officer on a horse is highly reminiscent of the military portraits of Napoleon and others, and yet has lost the overpoweringly threatening undertones — perhaps since the horse is no longer a military “vehicle”. The romantic notion of “horse” has forever changed our relationship with the creature. In nineteenth-century France, the rise of industrialization ensured that nature became subservient to the demands of humankind. It became something to be tamed in the name of human progress. Romanticism was very much a response to that — a rebellion against it. The Romantics — Delacroix included — saw nature as something more powerful than man could ever be. And for Delacroix, no symbol better exemplified nature’s majesty than the horse. In our never-ceasing world of progress and expansion, we are again seeing a rebellion against the idea that nature is tameable. Perhaps a mounted police force is an unnecessary remnant of the past. But it could also be an excellent example of the way artistic trends throughout history have defined and redefined society’s relationship to the natural world.


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