Two horses run wild across a flat, earthy plain against a cloudy sunset. These are Xanthus and Balius, the immortal horses of the Greek hero Achilles. They were the offspring of Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, who may be personified by the winged head which is about to expel a mouthful of air.
Achilles was a central character in Homer’s Iliad, an ancient Greek epic poem about the Trojan War. As an infant he had been dipped in the Styx, a river of the underworld with the power to make people immortal, although one heel was left dry. This made him seemingly invincible, but he was finally killed by an arrow to that vulnerable spot.
The painting was traditionally thought to be by Anthony van Dyck, and it does display the liveliness of his studies of Andalusian horses. But, in 1966, cleaning revealed that it was probably painted at a later date by another artist in the style of the great Flemish master.
Two horses run wild across a flat, earthy plain against a cloudy sunset. The horse to the left of the scene is more thinly painted over the brown base colour so that it smoulders yellow in the dusky light; the one advancing wildly toward the viewer is highlighted in cream and white, reflecting another, brighter light source. According to an inscription on the cartellino in the bottom left, these are ‘the horses of Achilles’ (equi/aquillis), Xanthus and Balius. They were the immortal offspring of the harpy Podarge and the god of the west wind, Zephyrus, who may be represented by the winged head with its cheeks filled with air to blow out.
According to the Iliad, an epic poem by the ancient Greek poet Homer, Poseidon, god of the sea, gifted the horses to King Peleus, who then gave them to his son, Achilles. According to legend, when Achilles was an infant, his mother – the sea nymph Thetis – dipped him in the waters of the Styx, a river of the underworld with the power to make someone immortal. But to do so, she held her son by his heel, leaving this one spot untouched by the water. Achilles became a seemingly invincible soldier, fighting in the Trojan War and killing the Trojans’ best warrior, Prince Hector. He was eventually killed by an arrow, shot into his vulnerable heel by Hector’s brother, Paris.
Exactly which part of the Homeric myth this painting depicts is unclear: the horses are not tethered to Achilles’ chariot, but running free in a barren expanse. Homer relates how Achilles’ closest companion, Patroclus, could control the two horses, and when he was killed the animals grieved on the battlefield. This may well be the moment shown here: the horse in the foreground certainly appears agitated, with its widened eyes, dishevelled hair and flared, red-flecked nostrils. But it could equally be an image of the wild immortal horses with their wind-god father before they were granted to Peleus. A similar horse to the one on the left appears to have been painted in the sky and then overpainted as the artist changed the picture’s composition.
Whatever its subject, the picture is certainly intended to showcase the artist’s competency in convincingly painting horse expression, anatomy and movement – a notably difficult skill which both the Flemish painter Anthony Van Dyck and his teacher Rubens mastered in their numerous depictions of horses. The painting was traditionally thought to be by Van Dyck, and certainly displays the liveliness of his studies of Andalusian horses. Cleaning of the painting in 1966, however, revealed that it was probably painted at a later date by another artist in the style of the great master. Elements of the paint handling, and the pink, blue and yellow colours of the background, recall the style of the Venetian painter Titian, whose work deeply influenced Van Dyck and many of his contemporaries and followers.
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