The Start of the Race of the Riderless Horses, by 1820
Horace Vernet (French, 1789–1863)
Oil on canvas; 18 1/8 x 21 1/4 in. (46 x 54 cm)
Signed (lower right): H. V.
Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Bequest of Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, 1887 (87.15.47)
A highlight of the Roman carnival was the race of small horses from wild stock—called Barbary after their North African origin—down the mile-long Corso, from the Piazza del Popolo to the Piazza Venezia. Many writers and artists were attracted by the colorful event and sometimes appalled by the cruelty of the populace. Weighted, spiked balls were attached by cords to the horses to spur the animals as they moved.
Vernet was a close associate of Gericault, and he must have known the many studies the artist made in Rome in 1817 for a painting of the race. Vernet's own composition of 1820 was bought by an influential collector, the duc de Blacas, who was the French ambassador to Rome during Vernet's stay. Long thought lost, Vernet's finished painting has recently been identified in a private collection. The Metropolitan's vivid study was already well known in the mid-nineteenth century: Edgar Degas copied it in the 1850s.