A versatile painter of landscapes, genre scenes and mythological and religious works, Wouwerman is best known for his skillful depictions of horses, which appear most frequently in small cabinet pictures of hunts, stables, forges and battles. These paintings were admired in Wouwerman’s lifetime, but became immensely popular following his death in 1668, particularly in 18th-century France and Germany. Wouwerman was a pupil of Frans Hals, although little evidence of Hals’s style is discernible in his works. He also studied briefly under the German history painter Evert Decker in 1638 or 1639. The greatest artistic influences on Wouwerman, however, were the landscapes of Jan Wynants and the scenes of peasant life by Pieter van Laer, a Dutch artist who spent time in Italy. According to Houbraken, Wouwerman acquired van Laer’s sketches and studies after his death, and this may have provided the stimulus for the Italianate nature of many of his works. Wouwerman’s oeuvre was prolific, comprising over one thousand paintings, of which only a handful are dated.
In this work, men and horses are depicted watering at a river alongside two bathers. Afternoon light illuminates the scene from the left, with dark cloud formations over the water. The painting features four horses in different poses, demonstrating Wouwerman’s deep knowledge of the animal. Attention is focused upon the white horse, whose anatomy is skillfully represented. The brown horse to the left is in a stance almost resembling a levade, a classical dressage position involving a horse raising its forelegs off the ground. Contemporary dressage figures feature in a number of Wouwerman’s paintings, with a white horse also performing a levade in Riding School and Watering Place (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, inv. no. 713) and a brown horse performing a courbette in the foreground of A Battle Scene (Kassel, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Alter Meister, inv. no. GK 354). Wouwerman’s knowledge of these figures may have derived from Antoine de Pluvinel’s La Manège Royal (1623), the contemporary handbook on horse dressage, which was illustrated by Crispijn van de Passe the Younger. The inclusion of bathers may derive from Wouwerman’s admiration for the work of Pieter van Laer and the French draughtsman and printmaker Jacques Callot. Both artists featured bathers in works such as van Laer’s The Ford (Bremen, Kunsthalle, inv. no. 69-1856) and Callot’s engraving of The Bathers from his ten-part series dedicated to Don Giovanni de’ Medici.
Wouwerman clearly enjoyed much success with his ‘horse pond’ subjects since Schumacher’s 2006 catalogue raisonné lists thirty-two autograph works featuring them. Schumacher dates these works to the period between the late 1640s and mid-1660s, with one of the works, Horse watering place at a stone bridge, being signed and dated 1651 (private collection). This painting is likely to have been executed after 1646, when Wouwerman began to favour the monogram ‘PHILSW’ instead of ‘PHW’.