‘Is there a more mysterious idea for the artist than the conception of how nature may be mirrored in the eye of the animal? How does a horse see the world, how does an eagle, a deer or a dog? How poor and how soulless is our convention of placing animals in a landscape familiar to our own eyes rather than transporting ourselves into the soul of the animal in order to imagine his perception?’ (Franz Marc, quoted in K. Lankheit, ed., Franz Marc: Schriften, Cologne, 1978, p. 99).
Drei Pferde, a masterpiece that has held a cherished position in a family's collection for over sixty years, belongs to Franz Marc’s great series of near-visionary paintings of animals immersed in and seemingly becoming a part of their environment. It is among one of the most accomplished of a pioneering and career-defning series of mixed- media paintings of horses made in the last years before the First World War in which Marc moved increasingly towards complete abstraction. Moreover, it is a work with a distinguished provenance. Executed in 1912, Drei Pferde was a gift from the artist to the eminent collector Karl Ernst Osthaus on the 10th Anniversary of his founding of the Folkwang Museum in Hagen.
With its rhythmically curved and radiating forms appearing to generate an undulating swirl of near-motional coloured forms, Drei Pferde is one of the artist’s frst and fnest expressions of his idealised vision of the world as an holistic, harmonious and ultimately, abstract spiritual entity. As with so many of Marc’s celebrated animal paintings, this spiritual vision is here centred around the powerful, and, for Marc, also strongly symbolic form of horses.
Aiming to convey what he believed was the holistic and unifed way in which an animal like the horse perceived the world, Marc’s increasing preoccupation with the fgure of the horse in nature ultimately turned towards abstracted form in order to express the ‘organic rhythm’ or universal synthesis between animal and landscape that he sought. A beginning of these preoccupations can be discerned in Drei Pferde with its looping rhythms of form seeming to pass from the undulating fgures of the three horses into a spiraling whirl of landscape behind them. A sense of unity and of harmony is conveyed by the confguration of the three horses into an L- shape that, with the turning head of the red horse, loops their progression of form also into the background. The front two horses, as several observers have noticed, also emphasise this progression by functioning as doubles of one another.
In the uniform feeling of its forms therefore, Drei Pferde refects the cosmic sense of a universal energy pulsing through animal and landscape that Marc wished his viewers to see and which he believed lay at the heart of a new future age of the spirit. ‘We are today experiencing one of the most important moments in the history of civilization. All the ancient culture we still trail along with us (religion, monarchism, aristocracy, privileges [including purely intellectual ones], humanism etc.) is a "present which already belongs to the past"...No one can yet say what sort of new culture we are heading towards, because we ourselves are caught in the middle of change; for the future age, in which all concepts and laws will be given new birth, we modern painters are hard at work to create a "new-born" art.
This must be pure and fearless enough to admit "every possibility" the new age will ofer’ (Franz Marc, Letter of 21 Jan 1911, quoted in S. Partsch, Franz Marc, Cologne, 1991, p. 39).
Marc’s spiritualised vision of the world was in part a revolt against the empirical and materialist ethics of the newly industrialised Germany in which he lived. This new materialist era in which Marc found himself was one that he believed was fast propelling itself towards its own end. Marc therefore saw the moral purpose of art at this time to be that of heralding or pointing the way to a new, anti-materialistic understanding of the world and what he hoped would prove a new era of the spirit. This vision was rooted in a deeply atavistic sense of pantheism, common to the Romantic era, and which, for Marc, was one that came to be personified by animals and by what he believed was their unconscious and innately spiritual understanding of the world.
Because of their very lack of consciousness and their instinctual action, animals have, as Carl Gustav Jung pointed out, ‘always symbolised the psychic sphere in man which lies hidden in the darkness of the body’s instinctual life.’ (C. G. Jung, Psyche and Symbol, New York, 1958, p. 105). Marc’s purpose in painting such holistic animal images as Drei Pferde where the horses and the landscape appear to have become a part of one another was, in part, an attempt to liberate a sense of this instinctual life in his viewers. The animal he primarily chose for this task, was the creature that, more than any other exists ‘as a symbol of the animal component in man’: the horse (C. G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation, New York, 1962, p. 277).
For Marc, the horse - an animal that had been celebrated as a Romantic motif in much of the art of the Nineteenth century from Stubbs and Géricault to Delacroix, Degas, and von Marées - was the ultimate symbol of the energy, grace and power of Nature. When he had lived in the village of Lenggries near the Austrian border in 1908, he had become well acquainted with the animals following them for months in their meadow and studying the rhythm and pattern of their curvilinear forms as they ran together in numerous sketches, drawings and paintings. After seeing the work of Wassily Kandinsky and Alexej Jawlensky at the Neue Künstlervereinigung in Munich in 1910, Marc began what was to become a prolonged series of paintings of horses in which he attempted to coordinate each of the separate elements of picture-making (form, rhythm, implied movement and colour) into an intensifed harmony in accordance with the ‘spirit’ and nature of its subject matter.
It was also essentially through the body of the horse and through the way this animal, in its movement and its physical form, seemed to articulate and express the static forms of its environment and the landscape within which it lived, that Marc explored these hidden ‘laws’ or intuitive patterns of feeling that, he believed, gave meaning and order to the apparent chaos of nature. ‘My aims lie not in the direction of specialised animal painting’ Marc wrote. ‘I seek a good, pure and lucid style in which at least part of what modern painters have to say can be fully assimilated. I am seeking a feeling for the organic rhythm in all things, a pantheistic empathy into the shaking and fowing of the blood in nature, in trees, in animals, in the air...I see no happier means to the "animalisation of art", as I would like to call it, than the animal picture. I employ it for this reason. In a Van Gogh or Signac everything has become animal - the air, even the rowing-boat on the water, and above all painting itself. Such pictures bear absolutely no resemblance to what used to be called “pictures”’(Franz Marc, Letter to Reinhard Piper, 20 April 1910, in G. Meissner, ed., Franz Marc, Briefe, Schriften und Aufzeichnungen, Leipzig, 1980, p. 30).
In 1951 Drei Pferde was acquired at auction by Kurt H. Grunebaum and has remained in his family ever since. Born in Essen, where Drei Pferde was on view for over ten years in the Folkwang Museum, Kurt was a general partner of the Simon Hirschland Bank, which fnanced the growth of German industry in the 1920s and 1930s. He emigrated to the United States in 1938, and continued with his career in banking, co-managing the New York Hanseatic Corporation. In 1977, he received the Grand Cross of the Federal Republic of Germany for services in furthering German-American relations. Kurt and his wife Anneliese were passionate collectors of German art, and Drei Pferde was just one of a number of works by German artists, including Beckmann, Dix, Grosz, Kirchner, Nolde, Macke, Campendonk, Feininger, Kollwitz, Modersohn Becker and Schmidt Rotluf, that they collected during their lifetime.