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Eclipse, with Race Track

Not on view

Eclipse, with Race Track

Artist: Alvan Fisher (American, 1792-1863)

Date: 1822-1823
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Overall: 24 x 30in. (61 x 76.2cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 64.149
Label Text
Alvan Fisher was among the first American genre and livestock painters. Capitalizing on sport and livestock images, Fisher accepted commissions from owners and breeders who wished to record their quality livestock and racehorses in a prestigious manner.

One such client was Cornelius Van Ranst. In 1823 Fisher immortalized Van Ranst's thoroughbred Eclipse who had achieved exceptional success as a race horse. Eclipse was retired in 1820, but Van Ranst was persuaded to retrain the horse for more racing. The practice of taking a horse from the stud barn to return it to the race track was considered outrageous at the time, but in 1823 Eclipse-then nine years old-won several significant races, an achievement heralded as unprecedented.

PDS





Text Entries

Alvan Fisher combines portraiture and landscape in Eclipse, with Race Track to create a sporting picture that is one of his most successful images dealing with the American Turf. Paintings of celebrated thoroughbreds had been popular in England since the mid-eighteenth century, but were unknown in the United States before a group of race-horse portraits was commissioned in 1822 by Charles Henry Hall (1781—1852), the New York agriculturist and breeder.(1)  Fisher was the first American artist to paint domestic thoroughbreds for patrons such as Hall, who had become as fond of racing as their British counterparts.(2) Though he portrayed Duroc, Sir Archy, Virginian, and Sir Charles, American Eclipse was unquestionably the most famous stallion “excelling all the racers of the day, in the three great essentials of speed, stoutness, or lastingness, and ability to carry weight.”(3)

Foaled on May 25, 1814, at Dosoris on Long Island, American Eclipse was sired by Duroc out of Miller’s Damsel.(4) Four years later he was regarded to be “the best three-mile horse of the day.”(5) At maturity, American Eclipse was “a sorrel horse, with a star, the near hind foot white, said to be fifteen hands three inches in height, but in fact measures, by the standard, only fifteen hands and two inches. He possesses great power and substance, being well spread and full made throughout his whole frame.”(6)  On March 15, 1819, Eclipse was sold by Nathaniel Coles, the breeder, to Cornelius W. Van Ranst, who owned the racehorse during his most illustrious days.(7) For the next two consecutive seasons, the thoroughbred stood to mares on Long Island.“(8)  Soon after he resumed competitive racing in October 1821, Eclipse’s national reputation was firmly established with several spectacular four-mile wins that culminated in the spring of 1823.(9) He was the first horse to be retired to stud and then to return successfully to the track.

On May 27, 1823, at the Union Course on Long Island, American Eclipse realized his greatest victory, a twenty-thousand dollar challenge match against Sir Henry, the colt representing Southern interests. By 1830 the editor of the American Turf Register could proclaim: “No race ever run in the United States has attracted so much notice, or had as much influence as that, in promoting attention to the breeding of horses and to the sports of the turf.”(10) From as far away as the Boston suburbs, where he maintained a studio, Fisher informed his patron, “I wish very much to be present at the races.”(11) He may have been among the “upwards of sixty thousand spectators” to attend the event.(12)  Since Eclipse had lost the first of the three heats, Cornelius Van Ranst declared, “He appears always to rise with the occasion. He has now proved himself, beyond all cavil, to be a horse of speed and bottom unequalled in this country.”(13) Despite subsequent offers of larger purses, Eclipse did not race again; his undefeated record was maintained for posterity. He became one of the most familiar names in American thoroughbred history.

To capitalize on the horse’s popularity, Fisher painted many versions of Eclipse’s portrait.(14) Though Eclipse, with Race Track is undated, the canvas closely resembles others that he executed in 1822 and 1823. Because the artist had hoped that Charles H. Hall would introduce his work to fellow racing enthusiasts, he notified him, “You thot [sic] it probable that I might dispose of some portraits of ‘Eclipse’ should I paint them. I have completed four pictures of him in a superior style.”(15)  Eclipse, with Race Track may be one of the “superior” works mentioned by Fisher. Its well-rendered landscape is not just a backdrop but frames the subject and provides narrative enrichment to the image. The painting with owner, jockey, and groom is more ambitious than those that depict only a single attending figure. Above all, the composition recalls the thoroughbred portraits, which illustrated the British Turf of the eighteenth century, by George Stubbs. It is, however, difficult to determine how familiar Fisher may have been with these oils before he traveled abroad in 1825. The artist possibly had access to engravings based on Stubbs’s pictures. The similarity is conceivably more than mere coincidence and may account for the English character of Fisher’s work.

Like the portrait d’apparat, in which a sitter’s profession is suggested by both the accessories and surroundings, the subject of Eclipse, with Race Track is presented as an equine celebrity of muscular strength. Slightly angled from a profile view and facing right, American Eclipse stands brightly lit in the foreground, dominating the left side of the composition. The stance reveals his powerful front legs. Because the horizon is low, the contour of the thoroughbred’s well-formed neck and back with plaited mane is prominently seen against a cloud-filled yet peaceful sky. He is firmly held by his owner, a literal reference to their relationship. Placed between Van Ranst and the race-horse, Samuel Purdy is seen holding a saddle and wearing the vibrant red racing silks that are the owner’s colors. He is the jockey who rode Eclipse to many victories. At the far right, a groom is folding the animal’s blanket.
Fisher has chosen the moment before the race begins. The horse is perfectly groomed, and Van Ranst is formally dressed. Any tension has been subdued; the thoroughbred and his attendants demonstrate full confidence. The painting is an image of composure, underscored by the picturesque landscape setting. It appears that Eclipse will be led to the track visible in the distance.(16)  A crowd waits there for the contest to commence, while another horse is being led around the course for the benefit of the bettors. The implied narrative connects the foreground and background scenes, which might otherwise seem a bit disjointed.

When Hall loaned his thoroughbred portraits by Fisher to the early exhibitions of the National Academy of Design, an important aspect of the artist’s career was brought to public attention. In 1827 a critic in the weekly New York Mirror wrote: “Mr. F. bids fair to become a first-rate animal painter.”(17) Although Fisher had introduced formal portraits of American racehorses to this country, his enthusiasm for native scenery caused him to forsake these sporting subjects in favor of landscape painting.

Adelson

Notes

1. A collection of seven letters at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond (Gift of T. Kenneth Ellis), dated between October 1822 and May 1823, from Alvan Fisher to Charles Henry Hall, discusses the commission and reveals the artist’s interest in thoroughbred subjects. In a letter to Hall on October 1, 1822, Fisher stated: “The paintings which you employ’d me to execute are finished.”

2. As early as 1665 the British colonial governor of New York introduced horse racing to this country on Long Island at Salisbury Plain, a two-mile course. It was not until the early nineteenth century, however, that thoroughbred races and breeding became popular in the United States. See David Hedges, Horses and Courses (New York: The Viking Press, 1972), pp. 113-14.

3. Cornelius W. Van Ranst, An Authentic History of the Celebrated Horse American Eclipse, Containing an Account of His Pedigree and Performances . . . (New York: E. Conrad, 1823), pp. 17-18.

4. Ibid., p. 18. His granddam was the English mare Pot 8o’s, who was sired by Eclipse, the renowned British thoroughbred. At five months old, American Eclipse was given his name, which clearly pays homage to his English ancestry.

5. “Memoir of American Eclipse,“ American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, vol. 1 (February 1830), p. 270. The article relies strongly on information first published by Van Ranst, pp. 19-20.

6. [Cadwallader R. Colden], “The Great Match Race between Eclipse and Sir Henry,” American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, vol. 2 (September 183o), p. 6. The taller measurement appeared in Van Ranst, p. 17.

7. Van Ranst, p. 18.

8. Ibid., p. 20.

9. Ibid., pp. 21-27.

10. [Colden], p. 3. This editorial note preceded Colden’s text.

11. Fisher to Hall, May 5, 1823, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond (Gift of T. Kenneth Ellis).

12. Van Ranst, p. 27. See also [Colden], p. 5, in which the author claimed to be an eyewitness and recalled, “The throng of pedestrians surpassed all belief—not less than sixty thousand spectators –were computed to be in the field.” In a letter to Hall on May 15, 1823, Fisher stated, “I am now engaged on a portrait of Eclipse for Mr. Vanranst [sic] which I shall carry with me when I come on to the races. . . . I shall be in New York [sic] on Thursday next.”

13. Van Ranst, p. 27.

14. In addition to Eclipse, with Race Track, the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art owns Eclipse, with Owner (1823, oil on canvas, 25 X 30 in.). There are three other portraits of Eclipse at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; one at the National Museum of Racing, Saratoga Springs, New York; one at the National Sporting Library, Middleburg, Virginia; and another in a private collection. Four prints of Eclipse, based on different paintings by Fisher, were published by several engravers including Asher B. Durand between 1823 and c. 1857.

15. Fisher to Hall, May 5, 1823.

16. Union Course opened near Brooklyn in 1821 with the result that it “placed racing on a more elevated and permanent footing.” (Henry W. Herbert, Frank Forester’s Horse and Horsemanship of the United States and British Provinces of North America [New York: Stringer & Townsend, 1857], vol. 1, p. 153.) It was at the Union track that Eclipse won numerous races, including the famous North-South Match. In the Utica painting the distant track with its stockade-like observation towers is most likely the Union Course.

17. New York Mirror, and Ladies’ Literary Gazette, June 2, 1827, p. 354.

 

Copyright
No known copyright restrictions.