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Work Harnessed Horse, Three-Quarters toward the Left; Head Straight on, with Bridle Hanging

Department of Prints and Drawings: 14th-15th centuries

Cheval harnaché, la tête de face avec la bride pendante

Prints and Drawings
14th-15th centuries

Author(s):
Mancini Federica

The Cabinet des Dessins in the Louvre has a set of eight works on paper by Pisanello on the theme of the horse, demonstrating his interest in the natural world, halfway between reality and the tradition of chivalry. The Harnessed Horse, a drawing remarkable for its elegant and precious technique, is also one of the most representative drawings of these themes. It illustrates the tastes of the fifteenth-century Italian courts, where Pisanello was one of the most highly admired artists.

A horse in a drawing

The realistic effect of this horse in motion is achieved by its steady gaze, which gives the viewer the genuine impression of being face-to-face with the animal's head. Fine, lightly drawn lines give the short hair on the nose a precision that goes beyond mere evocation: this impression also holds true for the areas of shadow, which stand out as a result of the densely sketched lines. The extremely close, head-on point of view makes this figure, as Rosenberg said, a study of "animal physiognomy". The meticulous rendering of the nose becomes more minimal and freer around the chest and neck, where the artist has used long, rapid strokes for the mane. The almost painstaking attention given to the details of the harness and bridle adds elegance to the beauty and power of the animal.

A quest for truth?

Pisanello's concern for descriptiveness and preciosity (which can often be seen in his drawings) does not produce an imitation of reality. The tactile sensation that stands out in the Louvre work does not give the expected result of a quest for truth, but is the formal completion of a study to which the artist incessantly returned, as was usual in his day. The Harnessed Horse has been compared with several paintings. It may have inspired them or been used as a preparatory study, which is notably true for the frescoes in the Pellegrini chapel in the church of Sant'Anastasia, Verona. All this remains speculation; however, the artist did produce a large number of drawings of birds and horses. Several explanations for this have been proposed: perhaps Pisanello put together a portfolio of drawings to be used as his commissions required. Another interpretation is that the artist was immersed in the culture of his time: in the fifteenth-century courts of northern Italy, he would have been familiar with courtly taste, which was rooted in the literature of chivalry (such as the Arthurian cycle), and the legacy of medieval bestiaries - books about animals with an anatomical and symbolic interest. The broad popularity of the courtly tradition perhaps reflected its persistence, at a transitional moment between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The little Pisan

Famous and in great demand during his lifetime, Pisanello was forgotten soon after his death. Vasari only devoted a few lines to him, and this negative judgment was consolidated over the course of the following centuries. His true worth was not recognized until the twentieth century - as an extremely gifted artist whose personal sensibility was forged in the northern courts of Italy, and who absorbed the new ideas of the Renaissance. (The Harnessed Horse demonstrates his knowledge of perspective, for example.) We have come across only a few examples of his works, although his graphic output was abundant; it has therefore been difficult to reconstitute and understand his work. The Louvre drawing, attributed to the artist beyond any doubt, exemplifies this problem: as yet, no date has been proposed for it.

Bibliography

Cordellier Dominique, "Pisanello, le peintre aux sept vertus", in Pisanello. Actes du colloque organisé au musée du Louvre par le service culturel, les 26, 27 et 28 juin 1996, Paris, musée du Louvre, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, p. 238, notice 139. Cordellier Dominique, in Pisanello, Milan, Electa, 1996, p. 302, notice 62.Rosenberg Jakob, Great Draughtsmen from Pisanello to Picasso, Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press, 1959.Syson Luke and Gordon Dillian, with contributions by Susanna Avery-Squash, Pisanello, painter to the Renaissance Court, Londres, National Gallery, 2001-2002, pp. 26-29.

Technical description

  • Antonio di Puccio PISANO, called PISANELLO (Pisa, 1395-Rome?, 1455)

    Harnessed Horse, Three-Quarters toward the Left; Head Straight on, with Bridle Hanging

    First half of the fifteenth century

  • Pen and brown ink; preparatory outline in black chalk (or charcoal?); rounded corners

    H. 26.8 cm; W. 16.5 cm

  • Giuseppe Vallardi collection (1784-1863); purchased for the Louvre in 1856.

    392360

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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