Artist not known, China
25–220 A.D., Eastern Han Dynasty
Height: 24.75 in. Width: 26 in.
Gift of Nathan Rubin-Ida Ladd Family Foundation under the bequest of Ester Rubin Portnow, 1999.276
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
This horse was carved by an artist in China during the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 A.D.). While the origin is not known for certain, it may have come from a tomb in Wuwei, a desert city in northwest China. Scholars have estimated the date and location of the horse by comparing the style to other horse sculptures of the same period. Art of the Eastern Han dynasty focuses on movement and expression. Sculptors often carved figures using angular and geometric forms, rather than clearly defined muscles. This horse is made of many pieces of wood that were carved separately and then joined together. Since wood tends to break parallel to (not across) the grain, the artist carved individual pieces so the grain of the wood follows the length of the carved piece. Wood is valued in the East for its beauty of grain, fragrance, strength, and elasticity. Wood, not stone, was used to build palaces, temples, and other grand buildings. The wood of this horse is amazingly well preserved for being almost 2,000 years old. This tells us it was probably buried in a region with a dry climate.
What Inspired It
Horse sculptures like this one were commonly used in China as mingqi [MING-chee], or tomb goods, and were buried in tombs. Mingqi were objects meant to be used in the afterlife. They symbolized immortality and high status, commemorated and recorded the life of the deceased, and displayed the devoutness of the children or relatives of the deceased. The horse was a symbol of immortality. According to Chinese lore, the mythical Emperor Huangdi achieved immortality by ascending Mount Kunlun, the home of the immortals, on the back of a winged creature that is often described as a horse. During the beginning of the Han dynasty, the horse became associated with the dragon and was assigned supernatural qualities such as the ability to fly. Horses were also important in building the cavalry, the most important line of military defense at the time. In short, the horse represented an ideal and became a metaphor in art and culture for its strength, power, potency, speed, grace, and beauty.
Note the sharp features of the face and flared nostrils, compared to the softer curves of the body.
The cropped mane is a crescent-shaped, flat piece of wood that has been inserted into a slot carved into the horse’s neck.
The short, cropped tail is a Han dynasty characteristic.
Notice the underbelly of the horse where the wood has dried and cracked.