Galloping into History
By LIZ HAGER
Eadweard Muybridge, Animation of Galloping Horse (details below)
This week I began work on a series of paintings inspired by the long and multi-faceted relationship between human and horse. As I was researching equine anatomy, my mind wandered to the summer of 1973, when I interned at a regional art museum in the curatorial department. Among other duties, I spent a a good deal of time in the basement workshop making mats for new additions to the museum’s photographic collection. To this day what I remember were the Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) horse motion studies.
The details of Muybridge’s life are well documented—his strange and multiple name changes, a murder rap, the brief career as a fine landscape photographer. Depending on which version of the story you believe in 1872 then-Governor of California Leland Stanford commissioned Muybridge to settle a bet/answer a question about whether a horse does/does not gallop with all four legs off the ground. The result (below) answered Stanford’s question definitively and caused Muybridge to abandon landscapes for full devotion to the study of locomotion. Art would never be the same.
Eadweard Muybridge, Galloping Horse, 1878, series of 16 photographs, most likely collotypes.
The motion studies have reached mythic proportions in our collective cultural subconscious. Although technically photographs, Muybridge’s serial presentation technique, as well as subsequent animations of the stills, seem to offer us proof of a “big bang” moment in the transition from photography to motion pictures. Whoa Nellie! Not so fast.
Although these studies led to the invention by Muybridge of the zoopraxiscope—a large projector with individual pictures mounted on revolving discs—it turns out that he wasn’t all that interested in the depiction of motion through photography. In his 1958 review in College Art Journal, Beaumont Newhall asserts:
“Muybridge, however, was not interested in the synthesis of motion through photography, and it was left to others to perfect cinematographic techniques. He set himself a double task: the scientific analysis of the mechanism of locomotion in men and animals, and the production of an atlas of photographs, which artists might find useful as substitutes for living models.”
At first, many artists resisted changing the centuries old ways they had depicted motion. (How anatomically quaint Delacroix’s “flying gallop” seems post-Muybridge!) Eventually, however, Muybridge’s oeuvre did become the comprehensive sourcebook for artists, sort of the motion articulation cousin of Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament. Impressionists most vigorously embraced photography as an aid to painting; Degas in particular is known to have modeled several of his racehorse sketches after Muybridge plates.
So in fact Muybridge did gallop off into history, but not on the horse we may have thought.