Mares and Foals Through the Ages in Art History

Foaling season is the ideal time to take a tour of the world’s most significant ‘mare and foal’ artworks through time. From the prehistory to the 20th century, Art Historian Georgina Downey, PhD, selects the classics and places them within their historical and social context.

Foals are just bewitching. Anyone who’s been around them knows they are time thieves and heart thieves. All ‘Bambi’ eyes, gangly legs and flippy tails, they’ve been enchanting humans for millennia. And their proud, protective dams make up the other part of this dyad, reminding us of the unconditional love, sacrifice and responsibility of motherhood.

Mares and foals have been captivating artists and viewers since the first Palaeolithic artist, 170,000 years ago, ‘blew’ powdered pigment onto cave walls in Lascaux, as we see from one part of the famous frieze which depicts four little foal heads one in front of the other.

One of the earliest sculptures on this subject is this charming bronze of a mare and foal from Ancient Greece. Attributed to a workshop in Elis, the region in which Olympia is located, it was probably made locally as a votive offering, somewhere between I000 and 700 B.C. This little statuette shows a slender mare and suckling foal, both modelled very simply, but getting across the essentials. In their conformation, we notice the high set necks of the Thessalian horse, a direct descendant of the horses of Ancient Greece. The bronze of their bodies seems to have been smoothed by human touch, in the manner of an amulet or lucky object. 

Indeed, during the Geometric period, such pieces served as dedications to the Gods and were offered up at temples, reflecting the value the Ancient Greeks placed on horses. 

In the 1760s Stubbs painted a series of ‘mares and foals’ subjects that were set against traditional views of the English countryside. Stubbs cleverly integrates the horses into the landscape by using a subtle counter-change of tones: he contrasts the light profile of the white horse against a dark cloud in order to counterbalance the dark profiles of chestnut mares against the light sky.

Stubbs always worked from detailed sketches from life. Upon moving to his canvas, he painted the horses in perfect detail before adding in the backgrounds, which allowed him to design trees, clouds and landscape features to best balance the horses’ forms.

Mares and Foals in a River Landscape is based on an earlier work in the series Mares and Foals Without a Background, c.1762, in which the same grouping (the same individual horses with one added in the centre), are depicted against a blank background, much like the one Stubbs used for his great equine portrait Whistlejacket. (See Images 3 and 4). The only differences between the two, besides background, is that the river landscape group lacks two of the original mares, and the mare on the right is a different colour (she’s become a grey!) and in a slightly different pose.

The idea for the frieze-like array may have come from actual Ancient Greek bas-relief friezes or from a seventeenth century engraving by Jan Collaert, in which individual horses of different breeds are composed as if on a stage in the foreground, against generalised backgrounds. Painted for an aristocratic patron, Mares and Foals in a River Landscape was an accurate group portrait of specific mares famous either for their racing success or as the dams of successful racehorses.

The naturalism of these works derives from Stubbs’s careful observation of living animals and also from his anatomical studies of horses for The Anatomy of the Horse, published in 1766. However, in his group of horses, Stubbs always managed to convey more than mere appearance; we get a real sense of these mares having formed their own (elite!) society, full of shifting relationships and moods.

Many centuries later, English artist and caricaturist Rowlandson’s drawing of a group of mares and foals is equally lively. It is filled with small sharply observed individual moments (as were his tremendously popular cartoons and social satire of the British people in the Georgian era).

Among the group in the foreground, we see one horse is sitting on its rump next to one bucking. In the centre foreground, four peacefully graze and gaze and roll, and to the right, two mares play affectionately with their foals. In the background, another more tightly grouped members of the herd look on as well as providing a focal balance to the antics in the foreground (See Image 5). It’s a lovely study of the natural daily life of horses and the many momentary incidents and social dramas.

James Ward was, after Stubbs, considered to be one of the most important animal painters of his generation. His lithograph Primrose and Foal, 1823, shifts us from the eighteenth into the nineteenth century, and to a more ethical, moral, sentimental, and more socially engaged treatment of the theme of mare and foal.

Ward was an animal lover and a highly skilled artist, adept at lithography [drawing on stone].  His equally brilliant brother William Ward transferred his drawings to print for publication. Primrose (See image 6) is seen here gazing into space while munching on a large pile of hay. Clearly an Arabian, with the typical dished face, close coupled loins, fine limbs and overall refined conformation, it is evident that she was once a magnificent horse.

From her swayed back and tired expression we get the impression she had been a broodmare for many years and this foal may be her last. Primrose is quite aged and not well nourished, her mane hangs in dreadlocks, and she has a poverty line down her quarters, showing ribs and hips and hardly any flesh on her shoulders or tail base.

In Ward’s print, the visual emphasis of her swollen and varicose lateral thoracic vein, the one running behind her elbow and branching out across her sagging belly, suggests that much of Primrose’s energy (literally her ‘life’s blood’) has gone into nourishing her foal in the womb and producing milk for him. Her foal is plump and well-formed, so she’s clearly used to doing a good job.

Ward has represented Primrose as a horse exhausted by her life as a broodmare, but the longer title Ward gives the picture in the frontispiece of the collection of related prints; “Primrose and Foal, A Brood-Mare, late the Property of his Grace the Duke of Grafton” gives a hint of her end-of-life fate. Wherever Primose was housed at the time the drawings were made, it is no longer with her aristocratic owner, but most likely with a local family. She’s done her bit as a mother of remarkable, race-winning foals, but she’s been moved on down the line to far more humble accommodations.

Her fate is construed as not entirely humane or responsible towards a horse who most likely produced dozens of valuable progeny for the Duke. When Ward produced this print in the early nineteenth century, British social attitudes towards cruelty to animals was finally beginning to shift.

In 1823, the same year this print was published in Ward’s ‘Celebrated Horses’ series, the philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham argued (of animals in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation): ‘‘The question is not ‘can they reason?’ Nor, ‘can they talk?’ But rather, it is ‘Can they suffer?’” To which Bentham answered a resounding ‘yes’.

Advancing the notion of animal sentience during the Victorian era and producing one of the great emblems of animal motherhood, Edwin Landseer’s The Arab Tent of 1866 shows an Arabian mare, bedded down on Persian carpets, tenderly enveloping her foal and nuzzling its haunch. (See image on first page).

The mare and foal appear curled up before us, and snoozing above them we see two dogs and two small monkeys cosily sharing the warm ambience. The monkey on the left wears an earring. A jar of incense burns to the left, and to the right a small green jar that contains two pipes references a human presence.

Landseer’s faithfulness of representation and loving attention to detail helps convey a sense of the desire of all animals for peace and happiness. The mare’s affectionate stroking of the foal is a sign of their deeply physical bond, and reminds us that it began as the mare first licked the foal dry after birth; in fact, the phrase ‘still wet behind the ears’ comes from this equine practice.

The depiction of horses sharing human domestic space is rare in Western art, but Landseer was keen to underline the centrality of the horse to Arab culture, a culture in which horses were considered gifts from God and mares were particularly respected – it was not uncommon for them to live in the tents alongside their owners. 

The head men of the tribes could relate the verbal histories of each family of horses in his tribe as well as he could relate the histories of his own Bedouin family tree, and the genealogies of their horses went down through the mare line.

While The Arab Tent is a wonderful study of Victorian era sentimentality and affection between animals and for animals, it can also be read in terms of that era’s coming to terms with Charles Darwin, and his Origin the Species, in which he formulated a theory of evolutionary biology based on natural selection that placed homo sapiens at the pinnacle of development.

If we look closely, we can see that the higher up the picture, the more intelligent the animals depicted become, with our closest ancestors, the apes, on the ‘top shelf’ so to speak. However, unlike the peaceful, snuggly and happy equines and canines, our forebears, the monkeys, are at odds with each other. One monkey is cradling an orange passively in its sleep, while the other looks on longingly. Landseer was loading the picture with far more than first appears, including this small but pointed reference to human greed and avarice.

Moving on from the moralism of the Victorian era into modernity, Robert Bevan, (1865-1925) was an English artist who came to prominence around the turn of the last century. He had met and studied with the French post-impressionist master Gaugin at an artist’s colony in Brittainy, and was interested in the use of flattened form, pure colour and symbolism.

He was also passionate about horses and a keen rider, and they appear often in his work. His best known equine subject is probably The Cab Horse of c. 1910, with its unexpected use of bright colour. This was part of a series in which he explored the decline of the urban cab horse business due to the rise of motor taxis, which by then outnumbered horse-drawn hansom-cabs in London.

Around 1900 Bevan developed an angular style with patterned backgrounds, both of which we see in Mare and Foal (Image 7). In this painting we see a dark brown mare grazing, with a chestnut foal with white stockings at her side, looking away from us. The negative vertical shapes between the horses’ legs are beautifully countered and balanced by the gentle rounded shapes behind them of the contours of the paddock rising to a line of trees. There is an almost architectural quality to the horses’ bodies, and the flat cropped composition makes us feel we could almost reach out and touch them.

The fact that the image is composed to position our eye line at their legs, looking up slightly, underscores the remarkable evolutionary adaptation of the horse in giving birth to babies, foals that have legs almost as long as their adult parents.

This survey of the art history of significant images of mares and foals together has ramifications for everyday horse owners in this season of fecundity. These images reveal the horse as a remarkably loving creature – maybe one that cannot rationalise the world very well, having a relatively small neo-frontal cortex. However, when you see mares and foals together, in art and life, you can see that they make absolutely the most of the mental abilities they have.

Equine mothers use everything in their evolutionary repertoire and ethogram to teach their young about what is food and not food, what is warm and not warm. They provide a safe haven and use their knowledge to shape behaviours, to instil notions of what is rude and polite, what is safe and unsafe. They train their babies in how to approach other horses, how to deal with humans, and crucially, how to learn, and how to do a good job, as an eventual adult horse.

To watch them together in this process, as artists have depicted them, is simply a remarkable privilege.

 Image Captions:

IMAGE 1: Edwin Landseer, The Arab Tent, 1866, Wallace Collection, London. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

IMAGE 2: 8th-7th century BC, Greek, Horse figurines. Small bronzes. Mare and foal. H. 9.8cms. Image source Wikimedia Commons.

IMAGE 3: George Stubbs Mares and Foals without a background, c. 1762

IMAGE 4: George Stubbs Mares and foals in a river landscape. Collection Tate Gallery London.

IMAGE 5: Thomas Rowlandson, Mares and foals in a field, c. 1780s.

IMAGE 6: James Ward’s ‘Primrose and Foal’ from ‘A series of Lithographic Drawings of Celebrated Horses’ published by Rudolph Ackermann and Rodwell & Martin, and printed by Charles Hullmandell, 20 April 1823.

IMAGE 7: Robert Bevan ‘Mare and Foal’ 1917.