Sports PaintingWith the possible exception of the sculpted nude female figure, it's the oldest subject in art. Man has always painted that which is important to him. When we look back at the very first and most archival paintings on earth, those that adorn the walls of caves, often dating back some 20,000 years, we find men bearing spears in pursuit of wild animals. He needed their meat to survive; but such hunting scenes also bear witness to the joys of the hunt. So, whether enjoying the pleasures of the nude female figure in his cave, or that of hunting animals on the outside, we find in his art the two most important elements in his life. Thousands of years later, portraits by Velázquez of King Philip IV of Spain and others by Gainsborough all depict their male subjects bearing arms, ready for the hunt. So it was up until the nineteenth century.
Paolo Uccello's Hunt in the Forest, dating from around 1460, may be the earliest sporting painting to survive other than those on the walls of caves. It's a broad view of a group of Florentine huntsmen and their servants, horses, and dogs as they surround a small group of deer. With its idealised, mostly rather flat figures, and prevalent symmetry, the whole work seems rather staged. But Uccello's amazing grasp of perspective and one or two exceptional images, seemingly drawn from life, lift this work above the genre of mere decoration.
In Spain, Francisco de Goya turned to the native sport in his Bullfight in a Village painted around 1815. There's no stadium, such as we are accustomed to seeing, only a ring of spectators and a modest, and seemingly inadequate, wooden fence separating them from the action as the mounted picador takes aim at the bull with his lance. The sharpness of the focus, as everyone faces the confrontation between man and beast, heightens the drama of this intensely exciting moment. Goya seems to treat the figure of the bull with far more dignity and strength than he does the animal's human enemies in this lopsided version of the hunt.
By the early nineteenth century, another sport had overtaken much of Europe - horse racing. Around 1831, James Pollard, in his Doncaster Races, Horses Starting for the St. Leger, painted us a broad panorama that captures the entire scene: horses, spectators, track, and the surrounding structures. The only problem is, he has painted us the entire scene: horses, spectators, track, and the surrounding structures. Even though the work is quite large, there's simply too much there for the eye to focus upon any one thing in the painting. Even the larger elements, the coaches in the foreground and the sizeable, Neo-classical structures in the background, all of which are relatively unimportant to the sport of racing, fail to capture our attention. Though the starter is dead centre, he is so small as to go quite unnoticed in the overall scheme of the scene.
In France, Edgar Degas went to the opposite extreme in his Jockeys Before the Race, painted around 1870. In a composition no doubt influenced by the rising art of photography (if not, indeed, copied from a photo), he divides the canvas vertically and slightly off-centre with the starting pole itself in what appears to be an early morning, pre-race workout. The major mounted figure in the painting is far to the right of this extremely vertical composition while two other misty riders occupy the background. Yet, because of this, we see and feel the immediacy of racing, the pending excitement, the motion, and the dynamic action that makes racing the sport of king and commoner alike.
In the twentieth century, we find Winslow Homer returning to the hunt as he explores the sporting life with his Right and Left painted in 1909. In nearly all previous painting involving hunting, even the work of Delacroix with his fantasy lion hunts painted from studies of zoo animals, there is seldom seen the moment of the kill. Instead, we usually see depictions just before the hunt or just afterwards. But Homer shows up the practice of double-barrelled shooting as the hunter apparently nails first one, then another duck as they fly by, although there is an ambiguous tension as one ponders if, perhaps, only one duck has actually been hit while the other attempts to avoid death. Despite the title, visually, there's even a question as to which duck, the right one or the left one, may have been struck. Because of this, Homer causes us to reflect upon the fragility of our own lives and our "sporting" struggle to survive.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
20 September 2001