Naked people and horses
I’ve always been amazed at the grace and facility with which Old Master artists could render the human figure, particularly in motion. Even the lesser artists seemed to do this well. I wouldn’t for a minute knock the output of contemporary realist painters (Jacob Collins, for instance would be a master in any period, Old or New) However, it’s interesting that most contemporary nudes are static depictions, at least the ones I see. Relatively few artists seem to attempt the dynamic nudes that were so prevalent in the past.
So what’s the deal? Were old artists just better than current ones? I doubt it. Did they just see more naked people? If anything I’d wager the opposite is true. Who knows… I certainly don’t. But something occurred to me when looking at some of Leonardo’s sketchbooks recently. He produced page after page of sketches of horses in motion. The larger forms of horses and people are obviously pretty different, but the smaller muscular shapes and some of the limb motions can look pretty similar. And particularly with their strongly developed muscles and short hair, the outer anatomy of horses is highly visible.
I’d guess that 500 years ago, animals in general were just a lot more closely integrated part of everybody’s life. And this would particularly be true of horses. Unless you were dirt poor and had to walk, getting from Upper Frogmoor to Lower Dullcrest involved a horse in some way. Daily life was full of the opportunities to observe these animals close up, and even if one was not specifically studying them, one would almost certainly subconsciously absorb the characteristic shapes and forms of these magnificent animals in motion. And a good intuitive feeling for shapes and motions of 4-limbed, well muscled animals could only positively feed into one’s depiction of humans in motion.
Obviously, few of us now have the opportunity to regularly see horses. Although our Great Dane sometimes seems massive enough (particularly when he tries to sit on my lap), I would have to say that it’s been years since I’ve seen one in person.
So what does this mean… should artists all start spending time at the race track? Well, I’m not advocating gambling, and I have no idea if I’m onto something here; I am just wildly speculating, after all. But it does seem interesting enough to write about, and I’ll probably look at pictures of horses more closely from now on.