Munnings writes in his memoirs of his visit by Baron Rothschild to his chateau in France "with an idea of painting his family on horseback, the Hunt at Chantilly or whatever I liked "(The Second Burst page 93). He found a variety of motifs besides the family portraits. He painted a number of paintings of oxen and the robust, picturesque white Boulanaise horses. "I was doing a picture of an old-fashioned French labourer riding one horse and leading another, as we see in England, against a background of far-reaching, flat, farming land going away in the distance. That afternoon, when I arrived at the farm, the two white horses had been carrying coal all morning, and were black from coal-dust" (ibid page 95-56).
It is these two horses that are in this present work. Munnings' love for horses in general and particularly those that he was to paint, became part of his method of painting. To fully understand his subject, not just it terms of their physical makeup but their character as well, Munnings would chose to paint horses in their stalls where he could easily study them. For visual interest he has these two draft horses harnessed and ready for work with the similar labourer attending them.
The Boulanaise breed of horse of northwestern France (also spelled Boulonnais) is an ancient breed developed from the pre-Christian heavy draft horse. Caesar's armies, prior to invading Britain contributed Arab blood, and then again during the 16th century, Arab and Barb horses from eastern origins infused the bloodlines endowing them with stamina and graceful action. The eastern influence gives the Boulanaise a finer, more elegant head that Munnings has clearly captured. The two world wars decimated the breed which is still small in number so this work may be regarded as an historical document of a nearly extinct breed.
This scene can also be viewed as a study in tones. Munnings had learned early on in his training the "value of tones" and throughout his career he would often create an image using a restricted colour palette. Situating the subject in a low-lit barn, as he frequently did with tonal works lends itself to a limited palette.
The present lot is mentioned in a letter from Munnings to Mrs. Crossman dated 26th April and sent from the Royal Academy in London. He writes, "Those two white horses were painted one day at Chantilly when I was staying with Robert Rothschild - just two of the horses on his farm there."