History: The Impressionists’ Race Horses

A Racing History

Various forms of horse racing have existed for thousands of years. Modern flat racing began to take shape in England during the 17th century. With the royal support of George II and Anne, the Thoroughbred was created through careful and selective breeding. In the 18th century horse racing grew enormously in popularity when Britain transformed flat racing into an organized competition via the founding of the Jockey Club in 1750.

Races at Longchamp, Édouard Manet, 1867

Races at Longchamp, Édouard Manet, 1864, oil on canvas

Parisians Drawn to the Races

While England developed the breed and organized the sport, 19th century French artists created many of the world’s most iconic depictions of horse racing.

After the French Revolution, French artists turned away from the pastoral and idyllic paintings that characterized the Rococo era. Instead, they wanted to depict purity, truth, and reality by drawing and painting via direct observation. In the second half of the 19th century, Paris was home to an impressive array of master artists, musicians, architects, and philosophers. The city’s rich and diverse culture led to the creation of several new artistic genres including modernism, impressionism, pointillism, and expressionism.

The Races in the Bois de Boulogne, Édouard Manet, 1872, oil on canvas

At the same time, horse racing was fast becoming Paris’s favorite “new form of entertainment” (The History of Racing, france-galop.com). Thoroughbred stallions were first imported to France in 1817. In 1834, the Champ de Mars was used for the first races organized by the Société d’ Encouragement pour l’Amelioration des Races de Chavaux en France (“Society for the Encouragement of the Improvement of Horse Breeding in France”, more well-known as the “Jockey Club de Paris”). Soon after, in 1840, France’s first “Rules of Horse Racing” were published.

Race Horses Before the Stands, Edgar Degas, 1872

Race Horses Before the Stands, Edgar Degas, 1872

Horse racing really boomed in France after Longchamp, now one of the world’s most famous and historic racecourses, was built in 1857. Longchamp is located in Bois de Boulogne, bordering both the 16th Arrondissement of Paris and the banks of the Seine River. The course’s close proximity to the city made it a popular weekend destination for many Parisian families who would travel to Longchamp via a leisurely one-hour steamboat ride on the Seine.

Left: Souvenir of Auteuil, Toulouse Lautrec, 1881; Right: The Jockey, 1889, Toulouse Lautrec

Perfect Impressionist Subject

Among Longchamp’s regular spectators were several of the 19th century’s master artists, including Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec. Live entertainment such as horse races, plays, operas, and cabarets provided inspiration for all of these artists; many of them actively created sketches on paper or cardboard as they watched. These artists believed in working directly from life in order to capture the changing light and atmosphere, two major themes in the impressionist movement. The races provided the perfect material.

The Racecourse, Edgar Degas, 1885

Edgar Degas was especially drawn to the atmosphere of the races and the spirit of the horses at Longchamp, creating a huge collection of artwork depicting the sport. For a nearly thirty years, Degas took drawing materials with him when attending races and created countless studies of horses and jockeys. In 1998, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. curated “Degas at the Races”, an exhibition that featured over one hundred of Degas’ paintings, sketches, and sculptures of one of his favorite subjects.

Exit from Weighing, Edgar Degas, 1866

Exit from Weighing, Edgar Degas, 1866

The paintings featured in this article are among the 19th century’s most famous depictions of racehorses. The artists’ detailed works depict the rich history of horse racing and reveal their fascination with the beauty and power of the horse. Degas, Lautrec, Manet, and other artists frequenting the racecourses did so in order to carefully study the horse’s form and accurately capture actions and emotions that occur in a fraction of a second. While it is evident that these paintings were created through direct observation, their depictions of immense animal power and the racecourses’ manicured green landscapes make these paintings unintentionally idyllic.