Gift Horses: A Stunning Exhibit Examines the Timeless Beauty of the French Masters 

click to enlarge Frenchman Eugéne Louis Lami’s “Les Courses” (circa 1860) made with graphite, ink, watercolor, and gouache on wove paper. This is just one of the stimulating VMFA works on display in “The French Horse: From Géricault to Picasso” at the University of Richmond.

Frenchman Eugéne Louis Lami’s “Les Courses” (circa 1860) made with graphite, ink, watercolor, and gouache on wove paper. This is just one of the stimulating VMFA works on display in “The French Horse: From Géricault to Picasso” at the University of Richmond.

Those familiar with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts know that its comprehensive collections span time and the globe magnificently. But highly specialized, gourmet treats that hone in on particular areas also are on view.

The Paul Mellon collection of British sporting art, with its emphasis on horses, is one such elegant pocket. What you may not know is that the late Virginia philanthropist, who showered the museum with largesse, also collected artworks by French masters examining equine subjects. So “The French Horse: From Géricault to Picasso,” at the University of Richmond’s Joel and Lila Harnett Museum of Art, is a visually and intellectually stimulating revelation.

Nearing the end of its run before being shown in Middleburg and Fredericksburg, most of the 40-some works on paper, with a handful of exquisite sculptural pieces, reveal how some of the vaunted names in the art canon captured an animal that for centuries was essential for agriculture, industrial, transportation and military activities as well as for sport and entertainment.

This exhibition also acknowledges that artists captured the seismic shift when horses were replaced in many of those areas with the invention of the combustion engine at the turn of the last century.

Despite the considerable sociological and historical revelations made by excellent descriptive labels of “The French Horse,” perhaps the most rewarding aspect of this intimate exhibition comes in examining how such greats as Theodore Gericault, Edgar Degas, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Pablo Picasso captured horses in motion and at ease through sometimes casual but exacting drawings.

They mostly couldn’t have known when they created these intimate works that after thousands of years of being central to the success of dozens of cultures and economies, the role of the horse in coming decades sharply diminished. But the innate beauty and power of the animals never waned.

Toulouse-Lautrec, famously known for his love of the female anatomy, reveals in “Le Tandem” — a quick, powerfully assured sketch of two show animals — an equally strong talent for capturing the contours and muscularity of horses.

In addition to boldface artists there are delightful discoveries of lesser-known talents. One of them is Eugene Louis Lami (1800-1890), represented by an 1860 graphite, watercolor and gouache work on paper, “Le Courses.” For so small a work, less than 7 inches by 14 inches, it captures the horse in a number of situations.

First, the steeplechase shows a racehorse as it approaches the finish triumphantly. Another takes abuse with a horrific fall. Meanwhile, two harnessed animals are stationary while attached to a carriage laden with spectators. The latter are more interested in socializing and flirtations than observing the race. The lines of Lami’s piece are as incisive and rich as his satire.

Visiting the installation at the Harnett is akin to entering a jewel box. Walls are painted deep hues of blue and terra cotta. The overall effect is simple considering the genesis of the exhibition was a joint venture of seven large institutions.

Under the guidance of the Virginia Museum’s Mitchell Merling, curator and head of its department of European art, and Richard Waller, executive director of the Richmond museums, an innovative art history course was team taught with the museum’s Jeffrey Allison and Kristie Couser in an intercollegiate seminar. Students from Randolph-Macon College, the University of Virginia, the University of Mary Washington, Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond participated.

There is much talk within cultural and educational institutions about collaborations, but rarely are they the norm — and rarer still are results so stunning as “The French Horse.” That the Virginia Museum has such deep reserves of seldom-seen treasures is a revelation. And “The French Horse” suggests that such works await illumination by fresh eyes and budding scholars. S

“The French Horse from Gericault to Picasso: Works from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts” runs through April 24 at the Harnett Museum of Art at the University of Richmond. 287-6659.

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