This dramatic painting of a dun stallion - which was the brief subject of conversation at London dinner parties of 13th and 17th February 1799 attended by Joseph Farington - has apparently been very little discussed in commentaries on Van Dyck. But it was drawn to the attention of Sir Oliver Millar in 1999 who, on studying a photograph, wrote that he was 'surprised' that it had been doubted as the work of Van Dyck, and then, in 2002, again wrote saying that he was 'impressed' by the painting itself. What follows is a review of Van Dyck's treatment of this theme and a consideration of what this grand but unusual depiction of a horse might have been intended for.
Susan Barnes now considers that Van Dyck executed the picture and suggests that it was painted as an independent work of art, 'presumably to show a hoped-for patron'. She dates it 1620-22/3: she points out that the handling of the 'sky and/or trees' is comparable with 'many works from that time' (facsimile of 12 May 2008). Others scholars have also placed the picture early in Van Dyck's career.
The pose of this magnificent beast, with its head in excited frothing profile, its rippling muscles in the quarters, nimble legs and ample mane, may derive from prints in Stradanus's Equile Ioannis Austriaci, 1581, for example the Eques Hispanus (A. Baroni Vannucci, Jan van der Straet...., 1997, no. 692.30), or Antonio Tempesta's series of Horses in different Postures or Horses from different Lands (Illustrated Bartsch, 36, 1983, pp. 160 and 202).
It is also possible that Van Dyck, recollecting such prints and small scale bronzes after Leonardo and by Giambologna (W. Liedtke, The Royal Horse and Rider, 1989, figs. 39-40), here sought to depict the horse as an independent work of art in its own right, demonstrating the greater superiority of painting over sculpture, which had not as yet found the means to cast a bronze on such a scale. He may here have worked in emulation of Virgil, evoking the lines (referring to a foal) in the Georgics, where it is described how '...the foal of a noble breed steps higher in the fields...His neck is high, his head clean-cut, his belly short, his back plump and his gallant chest is rich in muscles...Again should he but hear afar the clash of arms he cannot keep his place; he pricks up his ears, quivers in his limbs, and snorting rolls beneath his nostrils the gathered fire. His mane is thick, and, as he tosses it, falls back on his right shoulder...' (H. Rushton Fairclough, Virgil with an English Translation, I, 1928, p. 161).
Both the picture's scale and tempestuous character are exceptional, but the horse is saddled up as it is in his few other comparable paintings of riderless steeds. These are of various sizes and only one of them can safely be described as a modello: the trotting grey sold in these Rooms, 6 April 1984, lot 82; it measured 31¾ x 26½ in. (80.6 x 67 cm.) and was executed in preparation for the Brignole-Sale portrait (De Poorter et al., Van Dyck, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, no. II, 32). The larger, trotting grey, 51½ x 39½ in. (130.8 x 100 cm.) sold in these Rooms, 13 December 2000, lot 30, was either intended as a largescale modello or was an unfinished work, as it originally showed a rider in armour and thus connects with Van Dyck's posthumous portrayal of Emperor Charles V (De Poorter et al., I, 101-2 entries by Susan Barnes and Oliver Millar).
Presumably the 'model' for the Equestrian Portrait of Charles I in the National Gallery, recorded by Van der Doort in his catalogue of Charles I's collection (De Poorter et al., nos. IV, 51 and 52) showed the sitter, as does the grisaille modello for another equestrian portrait (De Poorter et al., no. III, 178). The two little grisaille panels (plus another, whereabouts unknown) at one stage accepted by Michael Jaffé, Oliver Millar and Julius Held as by Van Dyck and discussed by Walter Liedtke in his 1984 Metropolitan Museum catalogue, are now discounted. These show riders in attendance and one on horseback, and may in some way derive from Van Dyck and connect with the Three Men on horseback, formerly in Berlin, usually thought to have been painted in Rubens's studio. The configuration of the horses in these sketches do not relate to that in the present picture, where the pose is to a degree comparable with that in a little discussed depiction of a Cossack (?) on horseback (59 x 43 in., 152 x 109 cm.) at Schleissheim, which has an old attribution to Van Dyck, and is reproduced by E. Larsen, The Paintings of Anthony Van Dyck, Freren, II, 1988, no. 1046.
The pose also occurs, but again facing left, in the equestrian portrait of the Prince of Arenberg at Holkham (De Poorter et al., no. III, 66). Horst Vey and previous authorities believe that two drawings by Van Dyck were prepared for the picture, one in the Metropolitan Museum which faces right (C. Brown, exh. cat., The Drawings of Anthony Van Dyck, 1991, no. 53). This shows the intended sitter (rather than a sit-in substitute), who does not seem to correspond with Arenberg. Furthermore, a pentimento in the horse's rear leg accords with that shown in the present painting, as does the near fore hoof, although the mane is even more agitated there. Therefore it seems possible, granted the size of the painting, that it may be the major part of an abandoned equestrian portrait, perhaps begun circa 1630, in preparation for which the Metropolitan Museum drawing was made.
Noël Desenfans, the dealer and first recorded owner of the painting, is celebrated today as the creator from 1790, with Francis Bourgeois, of the greater part of the collection of pictures in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Richard Payne Knight, who bought it from him, was the foremost English aesthete of his generation and greatly influential; his reputation was to be tarnished by his criticism late in his life of the Elgin Marbles. He left a magnificent bequest to the British Museum of antique coins, medals and bronzes and a large number of old master drawings. His paintings were a less widely-known section of the collection he amassed; nevertheless, apart from the present picture, he also owned major works by Rembrandt, Dou, Claude and Mantegna, as well as Elsheimer's Il Contento at Edinburgh and the Portrait of a young Woman at Leicester, recognised in 1935 as by Michiel Sweerts.