At Belle Meade: A Plantation’s Foyer Serves as an Illustrated Catalog
By Olivia Armandroff, WPAMC Class of 2020
As a Westerner, I’m well acquainted with the impressionist artists, most notably Frederic Remington, who capture the unbridled vigor and energy of the horse. But in the second half of the nineteenth century, at the same time as Remington was at work on the frontier (as in the decades prior), other artists in the American South were portraying horses in a very different guise, showing their stately and majestic nature in static, carefully arranged compositions.
The burgeoning thoroughbred industry in the American South at the time drew inspiration from British precedents. The concept of horse portraiture is frequently traced back to the eighteenth century, when George Stubbs established the standards of portrayal after careful study of the animal’s anatomy and his publication of a book on the subject. Owners of the newly imported and bred stallions from the far reaches of the British Empire commissioned animal portraits to represent their exotic and abundant material wealth.
In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, visitors to the Belle Meade Plantation outside of Nashville would have entered the grand mansion’s foyer and immediately been introduced to the most important residents on the 3,500 acre farm (Figure 1). It was portraits of the thoroughbreds, not the family itself, that lined the walls. For those who made the visit for business, the space functioned as an illustrated catalog of the farm’s offerings which were available for purchase. In this showroom, the owner and manager of Belle Meade, General William Hicks Jackson, would have introduced visitors to a range of different thoroughbred specimens. Depending on visitors’ level of interest and their price point, he may have continued to court their purchase himself or relinquished them to his staff.
The paintings are referred to as horse portraits, rather than paintings, because of the attention each artist invested in capturing the subject’s unique anatomical features. These details would have indicated a horse’s ability to excel at racing and bring financial returns. Horse portraiture was a specialized industry and its practitioners followed the traditional practice of itinerant portrait painters, traveling from town to town in search of commissions. Most artists were born abroad and entered into the business only after receiving training in the art in urban centers. Hanging in Belle Meade’s hall is an 1843 portrait of Gamma by Edward Troye, considered by many the foremost equestrian painter in America (Figure 2). Born into a family of artists in Switzerland, Troye found a niche for himself in America fulfilling commissions for horse portraits in the Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi region. While Troye embraced the South as his home, other itinerant artists only sketched the essential anatomical details during their travels, such as the Canadian-born Henry Stull, who then ultimately painted Belle Meade’s Bramble, Trifle, Luke Blackburn, Falsetto, Enquirer, and Boulevard from his studio in New York City (Figure 3). Harry Hall, the foremost British practitioner at the time, was commissioned from abroad to paint the portrait of Iroquois, the most prized horse at Belle Meade and the first American bred horse to win the English Derby (Figure 4).
Moreover, many horse portraitists had established relationships with equestrian periodicals. Troye’s first ventures into the South, after arriving in Pennsylvania, were on sketching trips for Sartain’s Magazine. Although he abandoned staff assignments for private commissions, racing periodicals such as the American Turf Register and Spirit of the Times still relied on Troye’s paintings as illustrations and in 1866, Troye completed his own series of volumes, The Race Horses of America. Similarly, Stull was employed by The Spirit of the Times and later his work was included in the 1881 publication, Celebrated Horses of America. By cooperating with these artists, owners of thoroughbred farms were able to disseminate images of their stock across the country in printed form. Itinerant equestrian portraitists, often coming to the South from abroad, played an important role in cohering a dispersed community of thoroughbred breeders by introducing a new language of visual imagery.