When Gérôme went with some friends to Italy in 1900, one of their main purposes was to study the great equestrian monuments of the quattrocento. Gérôme was horrified by what he saw, as he told his student R. X. Prinet, "My friend, the Coellone of Verrochio is a detestable monument. Verrocchio didn't understand anything about the gait of the horse. He made it walk with the legs in an impossible gait: monstrous. ... Since Phidias no one before our contemporaries knew how to draw a horse. Meissonier was the first to get the gait right." This is no surprise: Edward Muybridge, the American photographer projected his famous slides of horses in motion at Meissonier's house in 1881. Gérôme and other artists were present, and for the first time they saw how all the legs of the horse were underneath the body at one time.
Gérôme prided himself on his horses, saying that he practically had to become a horse-dealer to learn all about them. His reaction to the Verrochio shows how intense the scientific drive of academic realism was; for Gérôme beauty was about 'getting it right', much as it was for the ancient Greeks. And these horses succeed because the painter got everything right: they stand correctly, the middle horse swishes its tail while shifting its weight; the sheen on the dark horses is an accident of light, not just an applied colour, and the heads and necks are correctly proportioned. Gérôme is demonstrating his mastery of the horse by showing three different views, three different poses, and three legible moods. They are the prelude for the series of small equestrian bronzes of famous historical characters he produced in the 1890s, culminating with the splendid, over-life-sized equestrian portrait of the Duc d'Aumale in a courtyard of the stables at Chantilly, a triumph of academic realism: the duke struts as if reviewing troops, the mount is still -- patient and undramatised.
The present work is notable for its spatial complexity, with great plays on perspective -- from the angle of the canopy, positioning of the horses, and crooked angles of the building on the left. The sense of enclosure is mitigated by the open dooreway on the left, which leads the eye towards the softening curve of the brown horse's tail.
A small preparatory oil sketch for this painting is in the Najd collection (fig. 1). Although the sketch is very developed for a study, there are obvious differences between the two; in the smaller version, the slave is seated on the ground before the left part of the door, which lessens the compositional tension compared to his position in the larger version; the alley way does not open into another street, the bridles and the saddles are not so complex and the horses are not so finished. All these areas are worked out in this finished version.
We are grateful to Professor Gerald Ackerman for his assistance in writing the above catalogue entry.