Horse racing really boomed in France after Longchamp, now one of the world’s most famous and historic racecourses, was built in 1857. Among Longchamp’s regular spectators were several of the 19th century’s master artists, including Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec.
The 1860's saw a sudden increase in the number of ambitious paintings devoted to the pleasures of Parisian life. Manet painted the upper class enjoying different social activities, one of them was fashionable horse racing.
Manet's painting is distinctive for its dramatic departure from the traditional lateral view of the horses in favor of a radically foreshortened frontal view of the animals galloping directly toward the spectator. The jockeys are intent on their goal, and the crowd is going wild.
Edouard Manet "At the Races" circa 1865 Oil on canvas
'What a transformation of every visible object in that luminous vastness of a race-course where one is constantly surprised by fresh lights and shades which one can only see there! ... I’ve never seen women arriving in carriages, or standing with glasses to their eyes in so extraordinary a light … Ah! How I should have loved to paint it. I came back from those races wild with enthusiasm and longing to get to work!'” Edouard Manet
This painting records the last moments of a race, as the horses rush past the finish line, indicated by the pole with a circular top.
"The Races at Longchamp" Édouard Manet, 1866, Oil on canvas
The theme of horse racing is recurrent in Degas's work, drawing its inspiration from the lifestyle of his contemporaries. This theme allowed him to tackle the traditional subject matter of the horse rider transposed into modernity. In the second half of the 19th century racecourses became very fashionable places for society where Paris bourgeois such as Degas shared their passion for this pursuit of aristocratic and British origin. Degas was also attracted by the theme for the opportunities it offered to study shapes and movement.
Dated circa 1866-1868, The Parade, also entitled Race Horses in front of the Tribunes, is one of the first paintings by Degas on this theme. Degas renders the atmosphere of a racecourse where only the nervous movement of the last thoroughbred horse indicates the imminence of the start. By choosing this moment, banal in appearance, Degas manifested his will to reduce the role of the "subject matter" as such in his painting.
He gave prevalence to light and lines: he was more interested in the silhouettes of riders and their mounts than in the start of the race. He deliberately neglected some of the elements that would allow identification of the place and of the owners of the horses, such as the colours of shirts. The diagonal motifs of the painting, the strong contrasts of light, in particular the shadows of the horses also reinforce the perspective down to the vanishing point located in the centre, emphasising the last jockey.
Edgar Degas "Racehorses before the Stands" 1872 Oil on canvas
Degas undertook racing scenes throughout his career, characteristically manipulating his horses and jockeys from one picture to the next. All the figures here appear in earlier works, and some of the poses have pedigrees even more distinguished than the horses: the prancing mount and rider at the center derive from Benozzo Gozzoli's Journey of the Magi in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, which Degas had copied in 1859. This picture is nevertheless unusual for its medium—pastel on a plain, unvarnished panel. With skillful economy of means, Degas allowed the wood to color the sky and distant landscape, and to provide a warm undertone for the turf in the foreground.
Edgar Degas "Race Horses" Pastel on wood ca. 1885–88
Edgar Degas "Race Horses" 1873, Pastel
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, "Souvenir of Auteuil", 1881. Oil on paper
At the left end of the picture stands Lautrec's father, Count Alphonse, overseeing the grooming of a race-horse. Behind his outstretched left hand one recognizes the caricatured silhouette of the painter, in the company of his tutor.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec "The Jockeys", 1882, Oil on canvas
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum
Art Institute of Chicago