From the beginning of John Graham's career as an artist, the horse held deep meaning for him. He collected numerous illustrations of horses --live animals, equestrian statues, carousel horses-- and although he was technically born under the sign of Capricorn (the goat), the astrologically-proficient Graham would refer to himself as a Sagittarius (the centaur). For the catalogue to his 1929 exhibition at the Phillips Memorial Gallery, Graham explained to his patron Duncan Phillips that "an Iron Horse wildly galloping . . . aims to suggest the spirit of evil and war" (Exhibition of Paintings by John D. Graham, Washington, D.C., Phillips Memorial Gallery, 1929, quoted in E. Green, John Graham: Artist and Avatar, exh. cat., The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 1987, p. 21).
Graham produced several variations of the image found in the present work; they not only refer to war, but were also intended, to some degree, as self-portraits. Eleanor Green has described Il Cavaliere Avvelenato (The Poisonous Rider; 1952, coll. Mrs. Edwin A. Bergman, Chicago) as "the quintessential self-mocking portrait of Graham: elegantly drawn, combining ink, pencil, watercolor and gouache, portraying [the artist] as demented knight on horseback. Here, the horse is so intent on destruction that his eyes are crossed" (ibid.). In Sum Qui Sum (coll. Andr Emmerich Gallery, New York), Green notes that Graham "drew himself on a charger with a crown like the first rider in Revelation 6:2 who 'went forth conquering, and to conquer.' His weapon is the Holy Lance, the Ottoman symbol of the emperor's direct relationship to Christ" (ibid.). The title refers to the name God told Moses to call him in Exodus 3:14 and, indeed, Graham had notions of grandeur regarding his own self-importance. Among his semi-serious biographical tales were the stories of his imprisonment with Czar Nicholas II and his family in St. Petersburg, and his claim that he was St. John (Ioannus) reincarnate.
These eccentricities were perhaps nurtured by his knowledge of multiple languages combined with interests in arcane traditions. At the core of Graham's beliefs were the literature of the occult, Symbolism and Theosophy; an insatiable passion for Eastern and Western mysticism, mythology and contemporary psychology provided additional sources for his esoteric iconography. Central to many of these doctrines is the idea of transformation, to which Graham refers in the title of the present work, inscribed incantation-like at the upper left corner of the sheet. Although he depicts neither an eagle nor a lion in the imagery, the flying swan relates this work again to Sum Qui Sum, as well as the painting Leda, which refers to another tale of transformation in Greek mythology.