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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Sir Alfred J. Munnings

The Red Prince Mare, 1921, Alfred Munnings
Sir Alfred J. Munnings Self-portrait,
ca. 1926. I love the paint splattered
smock and the remnants of an
enlarging grid; but would an artist,
even then, wear a bowtie to paint?
Very often in perusing the lives and works of great artists I find one content area for which they are most famous. In looking at such content it quickly becomes quite obvious why they were so well known in their particular forte--they were extremely good at what they did. However, having picked out one or two of their most successful endeavors in this regard, all the others begin to take on a sameness, which not only makes selecting additional works quite difficult, it also gets to be quite boring. And if I get bored, it's highly likely those reading about the artist will too. That's when I begin to search out works by that artist which fall outside their usual content area. For example, when I mention Sir Alfred J. Munnings, if you you're an anglophile, or an equestrian enthusiast, you immediately think of the huge number of horses he painted over a period of some sixty years during the first half of the 20th-century. That's fine. He was a great equestrian artist, perhaps the best England ever produced. But if you never get past his Red Prince Mare (above) from 1921, which sold in 2007 for $7.8-million, you will have missed many of his best works.

Path to the Orchard, 1908, Alfred Munnings.
Going to the Meet, 1913, Alfred Munnings
Although Munnings painted horses in almost every conceivable circumstance and season, my favorite is his Path to the Orchard (above) from 1908. Though few have classed Munnings as an impressionist, he certainly understood their principals both in terms of color and technique. It may be the most beautiful equestrian paintings I've ever seen. It is, however, not typical of his usual work. Going to the Meet (right) from 1913 is more the type of painting for which Munnings became famous. The contrast between the two is striking, almost to the point of suggesting two different artists.

Daniel Tomkins and his Dog, 1898, Alfred Munnings
First Study in Oils from
Life at Julien's Atelier,
1902, Alfred Munnings
Alfred James Munnings was born in 1878 near Mendham in Suffolk (the eastern-most area of England). His father ran a grain mill there. He began his training in art at fourteen, apprenticed to an artist in nearby Norwich with an emphasis on design, drawing, and advertising. About the age of twenty Munnings enrolled in the Norwich School of Art. In 1898, about the time Munnings painted Daniel Tomkins and his Dog (above), he lost the sight in his right eye as the result of an accident, though it seems not to have in had any effect upon his work or his determination to become a painter. As a young artist, he gravitated to the southwestern Cornwall area of England and the so-called Newlyn School where he met a young horsewoman named Florence Carter Wood. They were married in 1912. The young lady must have immediately had misgivings, however. She attempted suicide on their honeymoon. Two years later, she was successful. Munnings remarried in 1920, his second wife encouraging him to accept lucrative society commissions, though the bulk of his portraits continued to have four-legs.

Cattle Watering by a Stream, 1912, Alfred Munnings
Study of a Hound (detail), Alfred Munnings
That's not to say all his hoofed portrait subjects were horses. His Cattle Watering by a Stream (above) from 1912 shows him to be equally adept at painting beef on the hoof or, pork, as seen in his Pigs at Great Thurlow, Suffolk (below). I like an artist that doesn't discriminate. Inasmuch as dogs and horses tend to abide together, Munnings' Study of a Hound (left) appears to have been done from life, both drawn and painted in oils. Notice that the dog's right front leg seems not to have suited him, so Munnings simply painted a better one just above.

Pigs at Great Thurlow, Suffolk, Alfred Munnings
Self-portrait caricature of the artist at work.
This sketch recently sold at auction for over
With the coming of WW I, Munnings volunteered, but was found to be physically unfit. Instead he found himself in a civilian job processing tens of thousands of Canadian horses for use on the Western Front. Later, his talents as an artist were utilized in painting portraits of British and Canadian Cavalry officers and numerous battle scenes involving cavalry units. Shortly before the war ended, Munnings was knighted and elected president of the Royal Academy. He served until 1949, a staunch enemy of the new trends in Modern Art. He claimed that the work of Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso had corrupted art. After the war, Munnings went into a semi-retirement. His two Old Men in Period Costume (bottom) are from this period. In a similar humorous vein, Munnings pokes fun at Modern art with his painting, Does the Subject Matter (below), from 1956, which pretty well sums his feelings on the subject. Munnings continued to paint up until his death in 1959 at the age of eighty-one.

Does the Subject Matter?, 1956, Alfred Munnings.
I can't imagine any art museum, even back in the 1950s, allowing a dog inside.
Old Man in Period Costume Holding a Bottle and Glass,
(left) and Old Gentleman in Period Costume
with Walking Stick (right),  Alfred Munnings.