Sunday, July 31, 2022

A beautiful wooden horse

     The Art Institute is playing around with its American art wing. Which is nice because, well, when you visit the place as often as I do, everything becomes familiar, and familiarity and wonder are not friends.
     After exiting the Cezanne show — not bad, if you like Cezanne. I enjoyed the painting of his father, but that might have been because he is reading a newspaper — I checked out the American wing, paused to study, yet again, Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks." Then I saw this carousel horse or, as the Art Institute calls it with surprising specificity, this "Middle Row Jumping Horse (Carousel Figure)."
     The row a carved horse occupies on its merry-go-round has unexpected significance: the outer horses are generally the better horses, more finely crafted, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art writes, boasting about its "Outside Row Standing Horse (Carousel Figure)."
     "The animals," the Met explains,"especially those placed on a carousel’s outside row, feature extraordinary attention to detail intended to delight riders young and old." They don't quite spell it out, but the suggestion is since the outer ring of animals is the one easiest for potential patrons to inspect, it was reserved for the craftsmen's best work. And I want to draw attention to that "delight riders young and old." Almost a bit of showman's ballyhoo, a whiff of sawdust and cotton candy, preserved in a bottle and influencing the curator's academic description.    
     Both Chicago and Gotham horses are the work of Philadelphia's Daniel Müller, renown for his realistic horses. The Art Institute scholars also determined the steed is made of basswood and "possibly painted" by Angelo Calsamilia, "who traveled the country to repaint carousel figures in active use."
     That enigmatic detail made me want to follow Calsamilia around 1950s America, in his battered old Chevy, from fair to carnival — this horse was featured in Rock Springs Park, West Virginia from 1924 t0 1970. His oil paints and brushes in the trunk, his lonely wandering life, consulting tattered maps, dealing with the locals, missing his family. I'd read that novel.
     Regular readers might recall that I have a particular fondness for carousels, the melancholy of merry-go-rounds, and appreciate the Art Institute allowing me to admire this one. Which I'm happy to share to you.
     That's it. No larger point. A beautiful wooden horse on a beautiful summer day to celebrate the end of July.

A reader on Twitter asked to see the entire horse (Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)


  1. Thank you for sharing. I am overdo for a visit to the AIC and will be staying down on Randolph for a week soon. The perfect time to go. As a kid we'd drive to Wisconsin for the Barnum & Bailey's circuses, and were obsessed with getting on huge wooden horses on the carousel. In my 20s it was this one in Santa Monica: Great memories. Reading up on this today, looks like "Ringling is back." and there's an original carousel in St. Augustine, a place I've been wanting to visit after one trip there as a kid.

  2. Merry-go-rounds (or carousels, as some folks call them), do have a quality of melancholy about them. They're like the wheel of life, and the wheel of time, and the wheel of the seasons (not gonna go there on the link).

    But they can also be so much fun. Riverview's merry-go-round had holstered pistols on the sides of the horses. A kid could draw one and ""shoot" a laser beam at targets in the center of the ride. If their aim was true, a light would flash, and a bell would ring.

    I only rode on it once. I was eight. Never rode on it again, because I was too old for such kid stuff. But I've never forgotten that one ride. Best ever.

    1. They didn't have lasers when you were a kid! It was just a light beam from a very focused flashlight, hitting an electric eye.

    2. Okay, okay...
      So lasers were still five years away in 1955.
      And not widely used until the 70s and 80s.
      Picky, picky, picky...

  3. You mentioned in passing that the horse was made of carved basswood. That's really lightweight stuff, like the balsawood of your childhood toy glider, and brings to mind something I'd never thought of before: a full-size merry-go-round with two or three rows of horses is going to be seriously heavy, even before the kids and parents get on it, and while a denser wood might still be carve-able and more resistant to wear-and-tear, the resulting horse would weigh a ton. I don't know how much that basswood example weighs, but the designers must have been trying shed excess weight wherever they could.

  4. Who doesn't like Cezanne?
    A long way to go, but a lovely Carousel twirls nightly in the Piazza Della República of Florence, one of my favorite cities. A magical place on a summer night. Go for the ambiance, jazz selections of a brilliant trio -- violin, guitar and bass -- and the greatest abundance of Gelato flavors in the town.


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