Race Horses in Art: Kentucky Derby Runs Again (Degas)

Cher’s Famous Art

01 May 2021

Race Horses

Edgar Degas, French Impressionist

Edgar Degas: Painter of Ballet Dancers… and Racehorses

Edgar Degas “Race Horses I”

Horse Racing & the Pandemic

Edgar Degas, French painter, print-maker, sculptor and early pioneer of Impressionism, is probably best known for his portraits of ballet dancers. On this weekend of the famed Kentucky Derby “Run for the Roses” at Churchill Downs, in Louisville, Kentucky, I’d like to focus on his renditions of race horses!

For the first time in nearly 150 years, the pandemic shutdowns in 2020 caused the Kentucky Derby to be cancelled in May and postponed until Labor Day, when it ran with significant modifications. The 147th running of the derby ran as scheduled on 01 May 2021. See my 2020 blog “No Horses Galloping” honoring this event for more details.

The stuff stories and movies are made of…

As a child, I loved reading stories about horses that overcame the odds and became winning racehorses. Famous movies such as National Velvet and Secretariat come to mind. As I read the headlines of the 2021 Kentucky Derby Win, I can see another story in the making…

Medina Spirit, the overachieving little horse whose “heart is bigger than his body” (Baffert, trainer) led all the way and won the 147th Kentucky Derby. John Velazquez (right in photo) rides Medina Spirit to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday in Louisville, Ky. (Darron Cummings / AP)

Medina Spirit was purchased as a yearling for $1,000 and then again in 2020 for $35,000, small money for the high-stakes Derby. “He doesn’t know how much he cost,” Baffert said. “I knew he was training well, but I’m really surprised.”

Yes… here is a classic story in the making…and a movie…Stay tuned!

Horse Racing & Degas

Degas’ interest in horse races as a subject began in about 1861 when the Longchamp Racecourse opened in Paris, France. He was intrigued by and enjoyed studying the animation of the jockeys as they participated in the races. With the same intent with which he studied his ballet dancers rehearsing on the sidelines, he focused his attention to the jockeys on their horses as they were just starting the race, or coming back from the field with crowds in the grandstands, vs. during the race. These paintings are timeless and still.

Degas & Impressionism

As an Impressionist, Edgar Degas painted impressions of what he saw vs. attempting realism in his subjects. After the invention of the camera in the mid-1800s, some artists no longer felt that they needed to try to record realism in the representations of people, animals and landscapes. Impressionists made their artworks look fuzzy on purpose, showing impressions–feelings–rather than realism in their work. It was a controversial movement that shook the traditional art world to the core!

Degas’ Paintings & Pastels

“Race Horses I”

This is one of my favorites as it focuses on the shapes and colors of the jockey’s shirts and their effortless movements on the back of their horses.

A technique that Degas often used was to cut off part of the subject at the edge of the picture. This enhances the impromptu “snapshot” feeling of a fleeting moment.

Completed around 1895-99, it is pastel on tracing paper, laid down on cardboard, and 22″ x 25.5″. It’s home is the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. (gallery.ca)

“Race Horses at Longchamp”

The Longchamp race track, Paris, France, was one of Degas’ favorite places to paint. During his career, he created more than 90 paintings and drawings of racehorses in both oils and pastels.

It is an oil painting, 13.5″ x 16.5″, completed between 1871-1874 and resides at the Museum Fine Art, Boston. (mfa.org)

“The Parade” or “Race Horses before the Stands”

This is one of Degas’ first paintings on the subject. As is his style, he is more interested in the silhouettes of riders and horses than the start of the race. He deliberately neglects elements that would identify the place and owners, such as the colors of shirts and numbers. The strong contrasts of light as seen in the shadows of the horses, the diagonal movement, reinforces the perspective, down to the center vanishing point of the last jockey.

At home at the Musee de Orsay, Paris, France, this painting is about 18″ x 24″ and dates to 1866-68.

Read more on the Musee de Orsay on my Art & Travel Tips blog.

Degas’ Sculpture

Degas was forced to focus on sculpture over painting in the 1880s when an eye infection weakened his sight. His sculptures were as ground-breaking as his paintings. To make them look like real people, he painted them with flesh-tone colors. He dressed them in real clothes. He used wigs of human hair. Most of his sculptures were exhibited after he died, but can be seen in museums around the world today.

Degas’ Dancers

“Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer”

One of the bronze copies of this charming ballerina stands proudly in front of two of Degas’ most famous oil paintings of ballet dancers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY. (metmuseum.org)

Painting on our Left is “The Dancing Class”

Painting on our right is “Ballet Dancers Practicing at the Barre”

Degas at the Mia

The Mia (Minneapolis Institute of Art), Minneapolis, Minnesota, is honored to have one of his “Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer” in its collection. It also includes several of his paintings. It can be seen in the Impressionist galleries of the museum. (artsmia.org)

Side Note: My blog on the Minneapolis Institute of Art Mia focuses on some of the other highlights of this world-class art museum.

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2 thoughts on “Race Horses in Art: Kentucky Derby Runs Again (Degas)

    1. Yes, I love his “snap shot” effect as well. When he painted dancers, he rarely painted them performing on stage, but rather rehearsing or getting ready to go on stage.

      Liked by 1 person

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