Twelve prized steeds are on display, tethered in the immaculate equestrian wing of a samurai household. These horses (or, more accurately, ponies, in the case of Edo-period Japan) are presented as public icons of the wealth and power of their owner, a member of Japan's newly important warrior elite. A rich, gold cloud is suspended like a stage curtain above the magnificent stable, an idealized setting. The severe geometry of the rigid lines of the stable floor and walls sets off the controlled, curvilinear silhouettes of the horses. Various breeds and colors are shown, including spotted gray, palomino, and piebald black and white, some with overly fanciful spotting. Poses are deliberately varied: the horses rear, paw the plank floor, or bite at their tethers. These are not portraits of specific horses but rather ideal types.
The ropes tied under the bellies seem to be intended to prevent lying down. Traditional Japanese horse managers were fussy about how long a horse spends lying down. Stable screens (umaya-zu) often have a combination of unbelted horses lying down and standing horses with belts. Muromachi-period examples in the Tokyo National Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art, for example, have rambunctious horses with belts and others whose belts are hung on the ceiling out of the way. Melinda Takeuchi, who has studied this subject, suggests that horses can colic (twist their gut) when they lie down and thrash from side to side too vigorously. They also can damage their coat with their hooves. Perhaps they are only allowed to roll when someone is in attendance to keep an eye on them.
Robert Ellsworth acquired this pair of screens in the late 1960s, and displayed them on the walls of his living room.
Other screens of the same subject were sold in these Rooms, 24 March, 2003, lot 79.