Picturebook Horses

And between the shelves, framed pictures covered up the walls. The old colonel’s love of livestock showed in most of them. Here was a painting of a Thoroughbred stallion, unlike any real horse that ever lived. Yonder was a glorified version of a Durham bull pawing sand, his huge head lowered in lusty challenge.

Elmer Kelton. Hot Iron. 1956.

On the wall opposite above the sideboard was an oilpainting of horses. There were half a dozen of them breaking through a pole corral and their manes were long and blowing and their eyes wild. They’d been copied out of a book. They had the long Andalusian nose and the bones of their faces showed Barb blood. You could see the hindquarters of the foremost few, good hindquarters and heavy enough to make a cuttinghorse. As if maybe they had Steeldust in their blood. But nothing else matched and no such horse ever was that he had seen and he’d once asked his grandfather what kind of horses they were and his grandfather looked up from his plate at the painting as if he’d never seen it before and he said those are picturebook horses and went on eating.

Cormac McCarthy. All the Pretty Horses. 1992.

I’ve thought about this scene from Cormac for a long time. For one, I took a drawing class in college and since our university had a top-notch equestrian program, I was able to sketch horses of various breeds at the horsebarn. I know something about the difficulty of getting a horse’s proportions correct. Another, my mother worked for the American Quarterhorse Historical Museum when All the Pretty Horses was published. She read it and disliked it and eventually I read it and fell into a deep, deep Cormac rabbithole. Anyway, Mom curated an entire exhibit on the quarterhorse original sire Steeldust, and wrote a children’s book about him.

Finally, and here’s my actual point. Cormac’s observation about art and copying art from art–this mimetic impulse in humans to make something beautiful or commit atrocious acts of violence– and also separating artist from mere tradesman takes on a whole new level considering Cormac likely copied that exact observation from Elmer Kelton. It’s pretty much guaranteed that he would have read Kelton as he prepared for the Border Trilogy, and Kelton knew horses. Cormac, of course, made it new, but there’s a lot to ponder there.

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