They are terrifying monsters, bristling free spirits, symbols of civilisation ... Jonathan Jones on how artists have always been fascinated by horses
Whistlejacket, the winner at Newmarket in 1759, rears above you, his brown eye looking searchingly out of the picture, his legs rolling in empty, mustard-coloured space, for there is no background, no groom or stables or fields to distract from his pure thoroughbred horseness. George Stubbs' portrait of the Marquess of Rockingham's horse is a study in solitude. This 18th-century painter, whose fanatical preoccupation with horses is explored in a new exhibition at the National Gallery, strikes us himself as a bit of a singularity. The empty space that surrounds Whistlejacket is an image of Stubbs' art as it looks to us - disconnected from its surroundings, unique and unprecedented. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a thoroughbred, Rockingham's horse had a distinguished genealogy. And so did Stubbs.
In 1817, 11 years after the Liverpool-born horse anatomist and painter died, a whole troop of horses went on display in London that eclipsed anything a British recorder of horseflesh might do. These horses were attributed to the ancient Greeksculptor Phidias, who probably was responsible for the design of the marble frieze taken from the Acropolis in Athens by the British diplomat Lord Elgin after paying off the Turkish rulers of Greece. Acquired by parliament for the British Museum, the frieze from the Parthenon - built at the command of Pericles in 500BC after the Persians sacked the old temples on the citadel - was regarded by Hanoverian neoclassicists as the single greatest achievement of ancient Greek art.
This judgment stands. Today, you can walk along the parade of horses in Bloomsbury and marvel. Horses have never been portrayed with more variety, character and life than they were by Greek stone carvers two and a half millennia ago. It's a cliche to call classical art "chilly", almost as cliched as calling marble "cold". The Elgin Marbles disprove both received ideas. Some horses raise their heads proudly, others blow downward furiously; one strains, another is sedate. The young men riding them - mostly robed, but some nude - turn and talk or struggle with an unruly mount. All of them, though, maintain control, finally.
Why do horses figure so largely on these stones? Why so many, in such proud array? The frieze probably depicts the Great Panathenaic procession that made its way up to the Acropolis every four years. This ideal image of the world's first democracy is typically seen as an assertion of order against the forces of chaos, the cavalcade of riders - always on the edge of breaking ranks - a triumph of hard-won harmony and balance, like the doric Parthenon itself up there in the blue sky.
I think there's a simpler explanation. The Athenians are showing off. They are boasting how well their young men can ride. The presence of these riders is a mystery - the real procession involved infantry, who are absent. The display of horsemanship seems connected to the Panathenaic games. Naked riding was an Olympic sport. There's a gratuitous, free spirit to the marble horse riders - a pride in achievement for the sake of it, just like the Greek athletic spirit the modern Olympics dimly echo. Taming and riding horses was a matter of great pride in ancient Greece. In Homer's Iliad, the hero Hector is given the epithet "tamer of horses". In his tragedy Antigone, Sophocles praises man, wonder of the world, who has tamed "shaggy-maned horses".
You see those same shaggy-maned horses portrayed, 2,000 years before the Parthenon, on the Standard of Ur. This isn't really a standard but a box, whose purpose and even original shape are unknown, discovered by British archaeologists in Iraq in the late 1920s. Its scenes, inlaid in blue lapis lazuli, red limestone and shell, are among the oldest representations of human society that exist - depicting everyday life in Mesopotamia in the third millennium BC. Horses are shown pulling chariots. No one rides them, though. The Sumerians can't make that boast.
Taming horses was one of the great human achievements and one of the first things artists commemorated. People in the ancient world regarded the taming of horses as a living part of their history, a battle newly won. This is what we need to remember when we look at later representations of the horse, whether by Stubbs or Leonardo da Vinci, both of whom were consciously working in the classical tradition. "The classical tradition" suggests a frigidity, a disdain. In reality, the art of Greece (often known through its Roman imitations) obsessed European art until very recently because it is so alive, so wild. There's a raw innocence to ancient horses, a sublime magnificence that Donatello and Verrocchio, in the 15th century, tried to recapture in their equestrian monuments.
Learning to ride took a long, long time. The ancient Roman poet Lucretius saw it as one of the definitive moments in human evolution: "The art of mounting armed on horseback, guiding the steed with reins and keeping the right hand free for action, came earlier than braving the hazards of war in a two-horsed chariot." As far as the ancient Mediterranean and near east go, he got this backwards. The chariot came first and mastering horse riding - and fighting at the same time, for this was always a martial art - took longer. It was probably in Ukraine, about6,000 years ago, that horses were first domesticated. And it was probably in the Steppes, too, that horses were first ridden - from where nomadic peoples rode menacingly along the Black Sea coasts.
And untold ages before humans tamed horses, they painted them. Paintings of horses - and other wild animals of ice age Europe such as lions and mammoths - long predate human portraiture. The artists who painted deep inside caves, perhaps in a shamanistic trance, in France and Spain 30,000 years ago had no concept of riding the horses whose bristling manes and long faces they delineated so brilliantly; on the so-called horse panel in the Chauvet cave they are not treated in a different way from rhinoceroses. But the look of these paintings by the old, old, old masters is startlingly familiar. The ice age horses have the same bristling energy as the Parthenon sculptures. The raw energy, just curbed by their athletic riders, of the Parthenon horses comes to us straight from the ice age, from the dawn of humanity. These are the same horses - smaller than modern ones - bred just for a few generations out of wildness. Riding them really is an achievement that defines civilisation - which is what Greek art is all about.
There is one more set of monumental sculptures in the British Museum that shows exactly what an art this was, to ride and fight on horseback. The gypsum reliefs from the Palace of Nineveh, the power centre of the Assyrian empire that rose from Iraq in the first millennium BC, are, in feeling, somewhere between cave art and the Parthenon. There's a savage strength to these scenes of hunting and battle - the Assyrian empire's lethal military strategy was to march on a city and invite the terrified inhabitants to surrender before the war machine destroyed them. The reliefs depict the instruments of ancient war - siege machines and horses. The Assyrians, whether massacring or hunting, use chariots, but they also ride horses. And in one battle scene, there's an amazing detail. Two mounted archers ride side by side; as one raises his bow, the other leans over to guide his horse. At this transitional moment, in the seventh century BC, people found it hard to shoot and ride at the same time - although the king himself manages it in a hunting scene, shooting a lion from his horse, in solitary splendour. Horses, somehow, never did quite get tamed. The riders on the Parthenon keep their steeds in check. But on the same building appear sculptures of centaurs, whose torsos and heads are human but whose lower bodies are equine, fighting human enemies.
The best of these sculptures today in the British Museum are arguably the greatest marble carvings made anywhere before the birth of Michelangelo. Like Michelangelo, the ancient artist was able to make chest muscles appear to breathe, and the intimation of humanity only makes the monstrosity of the centaurs more confounding. Some think the myth of the centaur was a response to the terrifying spectacle of Scythian riders firing poisoned arrows. Maybe. But I think the centaurs come from further back in the human experience, when painter-hunter-priests subjected themselves to a shamanistic trance deep in a cave and communed, merged, with the animals they hunted. Horses were in our minds before the invention of the bridle. Look again at Whistlejacket. He bears no jockey, he escapes from Newmarket into myth. He is the last of the cave horses.
Stubbs and the Horse is at the National Gallery, London WC2, from June 29 until September 25. Tickets: 0870 906 3891