Friday, May 4th, 2012

Cowboy Watering His Horse, by N.C. Wyeth

The field of this year’s Kentucky Derby reminds me of “James Burke’s Connections,” a brilliant BBC series from the late 1970s that looks at modern life through the prism of historical connections.

For instance, Union Rags, a top contender at 9-2 on the morning line, is connected to:

  • A preeminent family of American artists
  • Who connect to Crystal Bridges Museum
  • Which connects to Alice Walton
  • Who connects to cutting horse champions
  • Which connects to Helen Groves
  • Who connects to Michael Matz, and Middleburg, Va.,
  • Which connects to Phyllis du Pont Mills,
  • Who connects to Brandywine Valley, Pa.
  • Which connects to Chadds Ford, the home of N.C. Wyeth
  • Who connects to Peter Hurd,
  • Who connects to Sentinel Ranch, near Ruidoso, NM,
  • Which connects to Bob Baffert, trainer of morning line favorite Bodemeister (4-1)

Here is  how it plays out:

Union Rags was bred and is owned by Phyllis Mills Wyeth, whose husband Jamie Wyeth is a celebrated American artist, as was his father, Andrew Wyeth, and his grandfather, Newell Convers (N.C.) Wyeth.

Jamie Wyeth painting

A painting by Jamie Wyeth.

Works of both Jamie and Andrew Wyeth hang in the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark., funded by the Walton Family Foundation, and conceived and created by Alice Walton, daughter of the late, Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

Alice Walton, 62, is the breeder of National Cutting Horse Association Horse of the Year Boon San Kitty, as well as NCHA Futurity champion Rockin W, named in honor of her Texas home, Rocking W Ranch.

Alice Walton and Helen Groves are friends who share a passion for cutting horses. Helen, an accomplished competitor and breeder of cutting champions, is great-granddaughter of famed King Ranch founder Richard King, and daughter of Richard Kleberg, breeder of American Quarter Horse Association foundation sire Wimpy, as well as 1946 Triple Crown champion Assault and 1950 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Middleground.

Helen Groves’ daughter, Dorothy “D. D.” Alexander Matz, is a noted horsewoman and wife of Michael Matz, trainer of Union Rags, as well as ill-fated Barbaro, winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby.

Michael Matz trains Union Rags for Phyllis Wyeth, whose late parents, James P. Mills and Alice du Pont Mills, raced such horses as champion Devil’s Bag and top sire Gone West, who is the dam’s sire of Union Rags.

James and Alice du Pont Mills owned Hickory Tree Farm near Middlesburg, Va., where Helen Groves operated Silverbrook Farm, which hosted a popular cutting event and sale during the 1980s. But Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth own Chadds Ford Stable, in the Brandywine Valley of southeastern Pennsylvania.

It was in the Brandywine Valley that Alice du Pont’s forebearer, E.I. du Pont, founded a gunpowder works in 1802 that became the formidable DuPont Company. And it was the Brandywine Valley School of American Illustration, founded by Howard Pyle, that brought a young N.C. Wyeth to the area in 1902.

Wyeth, one of America’s foremost illustrators in the first half of the 20th century, sold his first cover to the Saturday Evening Post in 1902. During his lifetime (he died in 1945), Wyeth created over 3,000 paintings and illustrated 112 books, including Treasure Island; The Yearling; Kidnapped; Robin Hood; and a host of other beloved classics still in print today and treasured for Wyeth’s illustrations.

Four of Wyeth’s children became artists, including Andrew, the most famous of the clan, and father of Jamie. Andrew’s sister, Henriette, who painted the official portrait of First Lady Pat Nixon, married one of N.C.’s students, Peter Hurd, who became a renowned western artist and painted the official portrait of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Peter and Henriette Hurd made their home on Sentinel Ranch, in San Patricio, N. Mex. San Patricio is just 20 miles from Ruidoso, home of Ruidoso Downs, which is famous for the $2 million All American Futurity, Quarter Horse racing’s equivalent to the Kentucky Derby.

Bob Baffert, Bodemeister’s trainer, began his career with Quarter Horses, many of which he raced at Ruidoso Downs.

War Horse

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

War Horse, which opened on Christmas Day, is a lovely film about the ugliness of war.

Joey, the title character, serves as a foil and unwitting compatriot for both British and the German forces during World War I. In spite of a sentimental plot, which should come as no surprise since it was directed by Steven Spielberg, War Horse illuminates the irony of subjugation and the beauty of unfettered spirit.

The scene where an English soldier and a German artilleryman wave a white flag and venture into “No Man’s Land” to free Joey from a tangled girdle of barbed wire is especially poignant. The two men talk soothingly to the gelding while they consider how to cut the strands of wire so that Joey will not become frightened and struggle against them.

Another powerful moment comes when the camera catches and holds Joey as he gazes into the sunset with the “look of eagles” that every horseman treasures.

A breath-taking scene early in the movie comes as an English cavalry unit, sabers extended, charges from a field of tall, golden, feathery brush into the face of heavy artillery. It is the leap from centuries old warfare into a new era where horses become as obsolete as bucolic villages where families make a living on small farms.

There is something for everyone in War Horse, and if you love horses, it is a movie not to be missed.

If you are interested in learning more about the role of horses in World War I click here.

Founding Father, famous horseman

Sunday, July 4th, 2010
"The Prayer at Valley Forge," by Arnold Friberg

"The Prayer at Valley Forge," by Arnold Friberg

The Fourth of July – the day Americans celebrate their independence and honor the nation’s founding fathers, none more celebrated than George Washington, “Father of the Country.”

This past Thursday, July 2, American artist Arnold Friberg, 96, died. It was Friberg, who created the famous painting of Washington kneeling and praying next to his horse in the snow at Valley Forge. The painting, currently on display at Mount Vernon, has been valued at more than $12 million.

Thomas Jefferson praised Washington as “… the best horseman of his age and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback,” and the Marquis de Chastellux noted in his journal that “The General Himself…breaks all his own horses; and he is a very excellent and bold horseman, leaping the highest fences, and going extremely quick.”

John Hunter, an English visitor to Mt. Vernon in 1785, referred to Washington’s stable in a letter to a friend:

“When dinner was over, we visited the General’s stables, saw his magnificent horses, among them “Old Nelson,” now twenty-two years of age, that carried the General almost always during the war. “Blueskin,” another fine old horse, next to him, had that honor. They had heard the roaring of many a cannon in their time. “Blueskin” was not the favorite on account of his not standing fire so well as venerable “Old Nelson.” The General makes no manner of use of them now. He keeps them in a nice stable, where they feed away at their ease for their past services.”

Blueskin, a gray, may have been the son “Lindsey’s Arabian” that Washington acquired as his mount. As the general was over 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed more than two hundred pounds it is evident that the famous mount must have had some substance.

Following the Revolutionary War, General Washington directed that the services of Lindsey’s Arabian be used extensively on his mares at Mount Vernon. The four famous grey stallions that drew Martha Washington’s coach to Philadelphia, when the first Congress convened, were sons of Lindsey’s Arabian.

Another favorite of Washington’s was Magnolia, a gray Arabian stallion that he raced in Alexandria.

It was also Washington who introduced the mule to American agriculture. Because mules are stronger and easier to maintain than horses, Washington was convinced that they made better draft animals.

Shortly after the Revolutionary War, he received an Andalusian donkey named Royal Gift, as a present from the King of Spain. Royal Gift and a later donkey named Knight of Malta were used to breed mules for work on the plantation. By 1799, there were 57 mules at Mount Vernon, where Washington hoped to eventually “secure a race of extraordinary goodness,” with which to supply the entire nation.

A Gift from the Desert

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

The world’s most exclusive exhibition of equine art and artifacts goes on display at Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, KY on May 29 through October 15, 2010, in conjunction with the FEI World Equestrian Games.

Sponsored by the Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation, to showcase the impact of the Arabian Horse throughout the ages, A Gift from the Desert features more than 400 pieces from museums and private lenders around the world, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oxford University, the Ashmolean Museum, the Egyptian Museum of Cairo, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the National Museum of Warsaw, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the American Museum of Natural History.

“In a world where differences between cultures are often the cause of fear, this exhibit will be a celebration of a common bond that unites people of widely divergent backgrounds – the mutual love and admiration we all share for the glorious Arabian horse,” said John Nicholson, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Park.

Among the priceless works of art and artifacts are the Standard of Ur (circa 2,600 BCE), the first depiction of equine driving; and the Kikkuli tablet, the world’s earliest known treatise on horse care and training from the Hittite civilization.

Some items are expected to be particularly popular with visitors, including the robes and dagger used by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in his famous march across the desert; an outstanding collection of Orientalist paintings depicting Near Eastern life and equestrian culture; depictions of the earliest Arabian-type horses from Egypt’s New Kingdom; and a stunning selection, many bejeweled, of saddles, tack, armor, and arms from the Ottoman Empire.

For more information:

On the road to Damascus

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Paint horses in Renaissance art? They were referred to as piebalds and one stunning example appears in a work by Caravaggio, the subject of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

The Conversion of Saint Paul (1601) by Michelangelo Merisi, the seventeenth century Italian artist known as Caravaggio, is dominated by a bay and white horse that reflects bewilderment, as Paul, who has fallen from its back in a trance, writhes on the ground.

On first seeing the work, I was reminded of a story that Buster Welch told me about an impressive sculpture of  a mounted cowboy. Buster stood in front of the piece for several minutes admiring the artist’s handiwork, until he noticed that the cowboy’s lariat was hanging from the wrong side of the saddle.

“That just ruined the whole thing for me,” Buster told me.

Contrary to Buster’s experience, the piebald horse didn’t “ruin” the picture for me. Because of my interest in horses and a meager knowledge of art, it enthralled me. This is a horse you could throw a saddle on today, not the stylistic steeds of Durer or da Vinci.

Criticized by his contemporaries for the sensational realism that he employed in his art, Caravaggio was the bad boy of the Baroque period. He was also a master of chiaroscuro, a technique that employs a dramatic use of light against a dark canvas. The white withers, shoulder, and forearm of Paul’s mount in the Conversion of Saint Paul (1601) draws the eye to his master in the lower right-hand corner, bathed in the light of revelation. The horse’s kind and concerned eye is mirrored in the face above his head of Paul’s companion, standing behind the horse and holding his bit.

Where did the concept of a Paint horse in Paul’s conversion originate? A horse was never mentioned by Paul in his own accounts (from his Letters) of his conversion. Nor was a horse mentioned in the accounts given in the Book of Acts of the New Testament. However, a fallen horseman symbolized the fall of pride in man in medieval society.

Caravaggio made Paul’s horse solid grey in his first version of the painting (Michelangelo also portrayed the horse as gray in his 1545 fresco), which because of a dramatically different composition has none of the impact of the second version. But earlier Italian Renaissance artists Carracci and Brescia painted the same scene with piebalds. Brescia’s horse (pictured)  even has a white forearm and, characteristic of the period, Brescia’s and Carracci’s horses are stylistically plump, the equine equivalents of cherubs.

Piebald coloring was connected to Greek mythology through Balius, one of Achilles’ chariot horses; in the Middle Ages the color was associated with magic and the netherworld. Baroque artists Reni and Guercino portrayed Paint chariot horses in their ceiling frescoes with Apollo and Aurora.

To see the Conversion of Saint Paul you must go to the Cerasi Chapel of the Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, but if you are in Fort Worth, the Kimbell Art Museum, directly across the street from Will Rogers Coliseum, has a magnificent work by Caravaggio titled The Cardsharps.

Coincidentally, today’s Wall Street Journal online featured a video about an amateur Italian sleuth who is determined to track down the bones of Caravaggio and determine the cause of his death (The artist disappeared in 1610, after he was convicted of murder in the death of his lover’s husband).

The Big Die-Up

Monday, January 11th, 2010

There’s an old saying in the Lone Star State that there “ain’t nothin’ between Texas and the North Pole but an old barbwire fence and it’s down most of the time.”

I’ve been reminded of that saying often in the past week and about stories of the early days of barbed wire in Texas.

During the 1880s, many ranchers erected so-called “drift fences” from east to west on their northern boundary to prevent outside cattle from drifting down and foraging on their range. A separate fence was also often strung up on the southern boundary to prevent cattle from drifting south “out of the country.”

Barbed wire drift fences stretched across the entire northern Panhandle of Texas by 1885. But they soon proved to be a devastating liabilty, as blizzards and freezing temperatures hit the southern plains in late December 1885 and the following winter of 1886-87. When cattle turned their tails to the Arctic wind and drifted south, they were eventually stopped in their tracks by fences. As more and more  cattle arrived, they became crammed against the fences in immobile packs and eventually froze to death.

When the storms dissipated, thousands of dead cattle were found piled against drift fences. Some ranchers estimated herd losses up to 75 percent. Hands on the LX Ranch reportedly skinned 250 carcasses per mile for 35 miles along one section of drift fence.

Lewis Nordyke, in Great Roundup, reported that cattle were stacked up along the Panhandle drift fence in piles 400 yards wide and cowboys said that “a man could walk from Kingsley, Kansas to the Colorado line using cattle carcasses as a path and never touch the ground.” When the thaw finally came, a Panhandle merchant purchased 45,000 hides that were by-products of what came to be referred to as the “Big Die-Up.”

Artist Charles Russell captured the devastation of the storms, which extended from Montana into Texas, in Waiting for a Chinook (also titled Last of the 5000), a painting that helped launch his career.

In 1899, the “Big Freeze” arrived in three successive Arctic blasts and brought some of the coldest temperatures to ever hit Texas. Ice covered Galveston Bay, people skated on the San Antonio River, and Dallas County registered a record 10 degrees below zero. Once again ranchers suffered losses, but nothing to compare to the Big Die-Up.

Horton Foote and Shanghai Pierce country

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

There’s a great article in the current New Yorker magazine about Horton Foote, one of our best, yet least recognized playwrights. Foote, who died this year at 92, won the Pulitzer Prize for The Young Man from Atlanta, but Tender Mercies and The Trip to Bountiful, which were made into movies, are works of his that people are most likely to know, although he also received an Academy Award as screenwriter for To Kill a Mockingbird.

While Foote spent most of his career in New York and New England, his hometown of Wharton, Texas, 50 miles southeast of Houston, was his muse.

“If a poet knows more about a horse than he does about heaven, he might better stick to the horse,” Foote was fond of quoting. “Someday the horse might carry him to heaven.”

Although Foote was not a horseman, Wharton County was headquarters to a vast cattle empire founded by Abel Head “Shanghai” Pierce, in the 1870s. I don’t know, but would be willing to bet that Pierce was the model for Soll Gautier, brought to life by Robert Duvall in the movie Convicts, one of my favorite Foote plays.

The story, set in 1902, revolves around Gautier, a senile Civil War veteran and plantation owner, and young Horace, who is working on Gautier’s farm to earn the money to buy a headstone for his father’s grave. As the movie opens, 13-year-old Horace is trying to get Gautier to pay up the $12.50 he owes him for six month’s work.

Notoriously flamboyant yet stingy, Pierce was so concerned with his legacy that he commissioned a life-size marble statue of himself from famous sculptor Frank Teich, but not before talking Teich down from his price of $2,500 to $2,250. Teich made up the difference, however, by carving Pierce’s hat smaller than the real thing, so the story goes.

After he had netted $25,000 dollars on one of his cattle drives, Pierce wrote a note to his ranch boss asking him to collect fifty cents from a cowboy for a pair of socks. Later when he found one of his cows branded “AHP is a SOB,” Pierce said he’d give it lifetime free range because it was good advertisement.

Still another tale has Pierce, in a moment of weakness, paying for the lumber for a new church. When asked later if he belonged to the church, Pierce said, “No, that church belongs to me.”

Wharton, with a population of less than 3,000, when Foote was born there in 1916, was also home to the legendary horseman J.B. Ferguson. Ferguson raised Go Man Go, Moon Deck, and Top Moon, as well as some foundation cutting horses, on a part of the old Pierce Ranch that he purchased from Pierce’s nephew, A.P. Borden, importer of some of this country’s first Brahman cattle.

I have slated Ferguson for a blog post in the near future – and I highly recommend Convicts to anyone who likes Robert Duvall, who acknowledged it, in an interview, as one of his favorite roles.