Lankester: The Problem of the Galloping Horse

Ray Lankester by Leslie Ward, Vanity Fair, 1905

One of Muybridge’s fellow speakers on the lecturing circuit in the late 1880s was zoologist E. Ray Lankester (1847-1929), at that time Jodrell Professor of Zoology at University College London. Influential as a teacher and writer on biological theories, comparative anatomy, and evolution, he would be knighted in 1907.

In 1889, Lankester had written a review of Animal Locomotion in Nature. Ray Lankester was an important writer of popular science, his weekly newspaper columns over many years being assembled and reprinted in a series of books entitled Science from an Easy Chair (first series, 1910; second series, 1912). With such attention-grabbing page headers as “Drowning in a Dead Whale’s Heart” the books were aimed at a general popular readership, but Lankester was a well-educated scientist and the contents respectably reliable.

One of these articles (2nd series) was entitled ‘The Problem of the Galloping Horse’, and originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph (date unknown, but some time between 1907 and 1912.) Writers have usually dealt with the subject using a phrase such as “before Muybridge’s photographs, artists had depicted the galloping horse in a ‘rocking horse’ pose, with all four legs widely spread…” but Lankester’s detailed account shows that the story is not that simple.

The “flying gallop”
Lankester writes of Muybridge’s experiments in sequence photography of moving animals: “I have some of these pictures before me now. They show what has been drawn by artists and called the “flying gallop,” in which the legs are fully extended and all feet are off the ground, with the hind hoofs turned upwards, never occurs at all in the galloping horse, nor anything in the least like it.” He reveals that a model showing the “actual instantaneous attitude of the galloping horse has recently been placed in the Natural History Museum.” Until 1907 Lankester was Director of the Museum, so quite likely he was instrumental in that display. Ironically, in the 21st century some museums are still creating displays in which the legs of animals in motion are incorrectly shown.

The story that French academic painter Meissonier adapted his representations of a horse in motion when re-painting one of his pictures after seeing Muybridge’s photographs is well known (and comes from Muybridge himself). The story was reported in May 1887. However, Muybridge’s biographer Hendricks points out that the differences in the two versions of the painting, in terms of the gait of the horses, is very minor. Lankester focuses his attention on a painting by another artist, produced the previous year.

Rezonville (copy, after Morot)

An epoch-making picture
“As early as 1886 a French painter, M. Aimé Morot, availed himself of the information afforded by the then quite novel instantaneous photographs of the galloping horse, and exhibited a picture of the cavalry fight at Rezonville between the French and Germans, in which the old flying gallop does not appear, but the attitudes of the horses are those revealed in the new photographs. The picture is an epoch-making one, whether justifiable or not, and is now in the gallery of the Luxembourg.”

Morot, cover of L’Illustration, 1905

Aimé Morot (1850-1913) was a French painter born in Nancy, where he studied under a drawing master named Thierry. He later attended the atelier of Alexandre Cabanel in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but left after only two weeks to continue his studies independently. During this period he spent much of his time studying animals in the Jardin des plantes, and was later to become famous for his paintings of horses, lions and bulls.

Muybridge included slides of several Morot paintings – including one titled Rezonville and another of the Battle of Reischoffen – in at least one of his lecture scripts, and the slides are today in the Kingston Museum Collection. These are 1880s paintings (the latter 1887) so would have been included in Muybridge’s later lectures – and one of them was shown to accompany his comment: “It is gratifying to ascertain that our labors are beginning to reap their reward, and that some artists are prepared to acknowledge that impression before knowledge and impression after knowledge are two entirely different things. In this picture by Aimé Morot we have an evidence of the soul[‘]s awakening.” [3] Morot’s early rendition of the correct attitude of the horse in gallop is mentioned in art history books, but I don’t remember reading about it in books or articles about Muybridge’s work.

Two questions
From his easy chair, Lankester continues: “Two very interesting questions arise in connection with the discovery of instantaneous photography of the actual positions successively taken up by the legs of a galloping horse.

The first is one of historical and psychological importance, viz. why and when did artists adopt the false but generally accepted attitude of the “flying gallop”?

The second is psychological and also physiological, viz. if we admit that the true instantaneous phases of the horse’s gallop (or of any other rapid movement of anything) can not be seen separately by the human eye, but can only be separated by instantaneous photography, ought an artist introduce into a picture, which is not intended to serve merely as a scientific diagram, an appearance which has no actual existence so far as his or other human eyes are concerned….? And further, if he ought not to do this, what ought he to do…?

Lankester notes that the first question has been answered by French writer Solomon Reinach, who shows that – “in Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, medieval, and modern art up to the end of the 18th century ‘the flying gallop’ does not appear at all!” [2]


English: “Baronet, 1794” oil on Canvas, location: Yale Center for British Art, Hartford, Connecticut, USA.

The first ‘modern’ example of “the flying gallop”
He suggests that the first ‘modern’ example is an engraving by Stubbs in 1794 of a horse called Baronet.

“The essential points about ‘the flying gallop’ are that the fore-limbs are fully stretched forward, the hind limbs fully stretched backward, and that the flat surfaces of the hinder hoofs are facing upwards.” [my italics]

Derby d’Epsom (detail)

Derby D’Epsom
Lankester then states that following Stubbs’ example this attitude was generally adopted in English art, and the French painter Gericault introduced it into France in 1821 with “Derby D’Epsom” which is now in the Louvre.

Science from an Easy Chair (2nd series)

Three types of pose
Lankester outlines three types of poses for the running horse in art, used for centuries previous to the “flying gallop”. He continues:

“The reader will perhaps now suppose that we must attribute the ‘flying gallop’ to the original, if inaccurate, genius of an eighteenth-century English horse painter. That, however, is not the case. M. Reinach has shown that it has a much more extraordinary history. It is neither more nor less than the fact that in the pre-Homeric art of Greece – that which is called ‘Mycenaean’ …the figures of animals, horses, deer, bulls,…dogs, lions and griffins, in the exact conventional pose of “The flying gallop,” are quite abundant!”

The break in tradition
Lankester notes that 37 centuries passed between the original use of the “flying gallop” and its re-introduction in the late 18th-century, and then asks:

“How did the Mycaeneans come to invent, or at any rate adopt, the convention of ‘the flying gallop’, seeing that it does not truly represent either the fact or the appearance of a galloping horse?”

Figure 5 is from a Muybridge photograph

The galloping dog easier to see
“The ‘flying gallop’, with all four legs stretched, and the under surface of the hind feet turned, is really seen by us all every day in the dog, and is recorded in instantaneous photographs of that animal at full speed. … It is easy to see the ‘flying gallop’ in the case of the dog, since the dog does not travel so fast as the galloping horse… It is probable that the dog’s gallop was transferred, so to speak, to the horse by artists… But it is a totally different thing from the gallop of the horse…”

The big question
Lankester then goes on to ask the other big question, “How then… ought an artist to represent a galloping horse?” – and deals with that contentious question at some length. He concludes that “The painter … would be wrong to select any one of the dozen or more poses of the galloping horse published by Muybridge, each limited to the fortieth of a second, since no human eye can fix (as the camera can) separate pictures….”

This contribution by Sir Ray Lankester, and his acknowledgements to Solomon Reinach, don’t seem to have attracted much attention by Muybridge’s biographers or more recent writers on the subject. Historians of photography are not perhaps inclined to seek out popular science books to study their subject.

The “flying gallop” – just one of several gaits that artists have represented differently through the ages, and all dealt with by Muybridge – is perhaps less interesting to us than it was to artists in Muybridge’s time, as we are more attracted to the questions of the influence of such photography on the futurists, and later artists including those working today, than in the reaction of 19th-century academic painters to the revelations of chronophotography. However, it seems to me that the full, detailed story of how Eadweard Muybridge’s important scientific work in establishing the true nature of animal movement was received by the art world is still to be written, and would be an important contribution to Muybridge studies. [4]

1. Nature, May 23rd -which I have not yet read.

2. ‘La Representation du Galop dans l’art ancien et moderne,” Revue Archeologique, Vol. xxxvi et seq, 1900.
(This was subsequent to the work of others, including Emile Duhousset and Muybridge himself, in tracing these artistic developments throughout history.)

3. ‘Lecture by Eadweard Muybridge’, Typescript, National Museum of American History, Washington DC.

4. Extracts by Lankester are from: Science from an Easy Chair. A Second Series (London: Methuen, 1915 second edition)

Posted here by Stephen Herbert