Edgar Degas’ equestrian fascination


“He was preoccupied with movement as something mecanic. His dancers movements are repetitive, and it is the same with the horses.

At the time, people went to the races both to look at horses and people, so his works also showed a side of Paris.

He was also influenced by his contemporaries, Delacroix and Ingres who emerged in the previous generation and who represented different spectres of art but who, in Degas view, nevertheless had common points in the sense that they painted horses and nudes,“ says Clausen Pedersen.


When everyone else was outside painting scenes that characterized impressionism,  Degas was in his studio, adding layers to his existing works.  


Degas also collected art from Delacroix, Ingres and Daumier, as well as sketches from Italian masters, from the 14th, 14th and 15th centuries where you would find horses and hunters.


“When everyone else was outside painting the water when the light touched it thereby changing its appearance, or some other aspects which characterized impressionism,  Degas was in his studio  while he, technically, managed to work in a way that was never seen before.


Movement as a motif is the most difficult thing to approach. So if you don’t have to make a living with painting portraits as so many other artists of that time, you never quite finish with your art work because it is so demanding. However, we see that he stubbornly continues to make it as accurate as possible.

His horses aren’t perfect but they’re convincing. Degas understands the essence of the equestrian body even if he never studied its anatomy. But he’s phenomenal at observing the horse. “

Just as it was the case with his dancers, the horse becomes a work horse.

It’s not grazing calmly on the plains but it is put in a context that creates tensions around itself and its surroundings, and the same goes for the dancers that represent bodies at work. A horse that stands calmly, sipping water is not as exiting to paint as a horse that is about to gallop,” says Clausen Pedersen.


In the case of Degas’ horses they are often pushed to their most extreme limits.


“We see some of them with open mouths which indicates that they were pulled severely by the bit, their ears turned backwards. Some have their ears perked as they’re about to jump an obstacle and others are doing the exact opposite, so it is also variations of a motif.

He was interested in the artistic side of it. And that is why he worked indoors, making sketches outside and then returning to his home to reconstruct them so they would seem convincing as works of arts – rather than as a realistic image. The art itself adds some dimensions.


One of his friends asked him, ‘How do you make all these amazing equestrian paintings; why can’t you stay outside on the track and make them as meticulously as you do in the studio ?’ And he answered, ‘I would never try that, try to keep the horses in place for my work. I go home and I make wax figures of them that I can hold in my hand while I study them.’


He revisited the same scenes over and over and he was never quite finished with them.


He never rides, he doesn’t keep any animals and he’s not particularily interested in them – apart from their movements and their bodies, that he finds so beautiful, ” continues Clausen Pedersen.


“He stays at home with his equestrian sculptures that he can look at while he draws them. He works from his memory and from his sketches.


The horse is repeated so many times in Degas career that it is removed from its flesh and blood and it becomes his work of art. He revisits the same scenes over and over and he never quite finishes with them, paradoxically, even if he produces so many works of art.


Later, when he no longer goes to the races, he still has his sketches and his figures so that he can continue to reinterpret his own works. Sometimes he even copied the contours of a work to start all over again. Reality only existed in the first stages of his works.”


Race horses in 1895 when stirrups were long


As one of only four museums in the world, the Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen owns a full collection of altogether 73  Degas sculptures including horses. In April 2015 the painting, “Jockeys Before Start”  was donated to the museum.  glyptoteket.com


Other museums with equestrian works of Edgar Degas include d’Orsay in Paris, the  National Gallery in London, Chicago Art Institute,  Norton Simon in Pasadena, National Gallery in Washington and Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond.


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