Watches and art are intrinsically linked in their ambition to please the eye whilst surreptitiously showcasing the technical know-how of the creator. As early as 1878, when Longines created its first chronograph, the casing was engraved with the delicate depiction of a jockey and his horse, uniting the two worlds. It also set the tone of another passion that over a century later would guide the Swiss watchmaker to Chantilly in France, where it would lend its support to the world’s first exhibition of “Painting the Races”.
Chantilly is renowned all over the world as the home of the racehorse. More than 2500 Thoroughbreds galop each morning on one of its many wide sweeping tracks that weave in and out of the Chantilly Forest, while in June the Chantilly racecourse hosts the world’s most elegant flat race meeting, the Prix de Diane Longines.
The spiritual presence of the Thoroughbred can be felt all around the commune, which lies only about 40 km north of Paris, but nowhere more so than in the “Ecuries du Prince de Condé”, the Great Stables, a veritable palace for horses that according to legend was built for Louis Henri, the Prince of Condé, who believed he would be reincarnated as a horse after his death. Today the Great Stables house the Living Museum of the horse, while the Château of Chantilly boasts one of the greatest collections of 15th and 16th century paintings.
Mindful of the strong historical connection with the equine world, in 2018, Henri Loyrette, honorary President and Director of the Musée du Louvre, together with writer Christophe Donner, created the first art exhibition dedicated exclusively to horse racing.
“Races became a symbolic theme of modern painting from the late 18th century onwards,” explains Herni Loyrette. “Yet, while the connection between Edgar Degas and racing had already been explored in an exhibition in the United States, there had not yet been anything specifically on the theme of racing. This topic, which might have seemed ordinary, proved to be completely original and unexplored. So I began thinking about programming an exhibition on the theme as part of the exhibitions in the Salle de Jeu de Paume. I had a starting point – 19th century painting – in particular the world of Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas.”
Since the birth of the sport in 18th-century Britain, artists around the world have been captivated by the fluid movements of the Thoroughbred, its majestic presence and anatomical composition, as well as the unique relationship and special bond it shares with its jockey. In France too, horse racing quickly became a favourite pastime of the high society and soon artists flocked to the different racecourses to capture the sheer power of these elegant animals. Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917) was particularly fascinated by the horse in motion and made it the central object in his drawings, paintings and also sculptures.
“Longines and Degas are contemporaries,” says Juan-Carlos Capelli, Vice President of Longines and Head of International Marketing. “Barely two years before the artist was born in 1834 in Paris, the watchmaking manufacturer at the origin of the brand had started its production in Saint-Imier, Switzerland. When Degas painted his famous Champ de Courses between the 1870s and 1880s, Longines produced its first chronographs that were rapidly adopted by equestrian sports enthusiasts. Visitors of the Longines Museum at the brand’s headquarter will be able to admire many pieces dedicated to the equestrian sports and the love for horses, among which, a pocket watch equipped with the very first Longines chronograph movement, adorned on the back with an engraved jockey and his mount dating back to 1878. In painting as in watchmaking, heritage remains the foundation of innovation. Ever since its origins, Longines has continuously relied on its three fundamental values: Tradition, Elegance and Performance. These values are intimately shared by the brand, the world of racing and the Domaine de Chantilly. The exhibition “Painting of races” presents exceptional artworks and offers an original approach to horses.”
If Edgar Degas favours the illustration of the horse’s movement, the exhibition opened with British artist George Stubbs (1724 – 1806), who is also known as the father of the “sporting art”. Stubbs had studied anatomy and his work includes pictures of horses that are among some of the most accurate ever painted. His impression of the horse, illustrated in a series of anatomical drawings comprising 24 views of horses, was innovative and at the time unique.
The exhibition also brought to light the influence George Stubbs had on French artists, like Théodore Géricault, who had always been fascinated by the horse and who painted the 1821 Epsom Derby during his travels to England for English horse dealer Adam Elmore. The Louvre museum acquired the painting in 1866 and it was kindly loaned to this exhibition at the Domaine of Chantilly. Interestingly, Géricault paints horses galloping with their front and hind legs extended outwards, which is actually physically impossible. This interesting fact though only came to light once Eadweard Muybridge published his photographic studies of horses in motion.
“The way in which horses are depicted in motion is one of the main themes of the exhibition, which culminates with the studies of Marey and Muybridge,” continues Henri Loyrette. “All of the featured artists focused much attention on this aspect. This exhibition leaves room for numerous developments and future explorations. The racing theme brings together a great many aspects. One of the first is Anglomania, as the passion for racing was an English one that really spread by contagion to France. It started to take off in France in the late 18th century, then developed more widely from the Restoration period, with Chantilly playing a fundamental role. Artists began to take an interest in it; Géricault copied Stubbs, whom he discovered properly during his time in England. Degas, in turn, studied the horse racing works of Géricault closely and Toulouse-Lautrec, with whom this exhibition concludes was inspired by Degas. A real kinship therefore developed between these artists.”