Where Dressage Meets the Canvas

Exploring equine form and gesture in classical portraiture

Credit: Courtesy, Marilyn Borglum Artist Marilyn Borglum frequently paints Urano VO, a Lusitano stallion owned by Lisa Diersen of the Royal Lusitano Farm in St. Charles, Illinois. Mario Contreras has competed Urano through Third Level.

It’s not uncommon to hear an upper-level dressage horse described as “a living work of art.” To artist Marilyn Borglum, this description makes perfect sense. Borglum, who rode and owned horses for years, says, “When I first started riding dressage, even just at Training Level, I found that it was all about a higher level of communication between horse and rider. I found dressage to be defined by the constant searching for the right feel, which is a really interesting parallel to art.”

The majority of Borglum’s paintings are large-scale portraiture. Working in mediums that range from black crayons to acrylics, and her primary subjects are horses and city scenes, but she also depicts humans and dogs. Borglum holds a master of fine arts in painting from Colorado State University and is currently based out of her studio near Chicago. Her portraits can be viewed in galleries around the country as well as in many private collections. 

The Horse as Subject
Borglum’s study of the horse in life-size portraiture runs deep and, she believes, stems both from her life experiences with horses and from her subconscious. “I rode when I was younger,” Borglum says, explaining the more hands-on element of her connection with horses. “My grandmother offered all of her grandchildren the opportunity to attend summer camp, and I persuaded her to trade that for riding lessons. I ended up riding school horses and eventually owned my own. I ended up falling for dressage at a stable where I rode in Minnesota. Through my riding experiences, I fell in love with the gesture of the horse—its physical expression when in movement became ingrained in me—without even realizing that was happening.” 

As an undergraduate, Borglum had initially pursued a preveterinary degree but realized it was not the right long-term profession for her after a work–study job at a veterinary hospital. Borglum became a fine-arts major and it then came naturally to explore horses as a subject. In many ways, Borglum says it took courage and a willingness to go against the status quo to paint horses during her time as an art student. The subject that called to her so intimately was seen as “just not serious enough for real art.” Borglum explains, “Often horses are depicted for reasons of emotional connection to the individual horse itself. So as an artistic subject for its own sake, the horse wasn’t a really popular choice for an art student. I did them anyway.”

For Borglum, being true to herself in this way honored a profound call to depict the equine form that went deeper than just a love for horses or enjoyment of riding. She explains, “Every time I get away from horses as a subject, they pull me back even stronger. It just seems to be the one thing I’m best at.” 

Borglum says the horse has always held powerful psychological symbolism for her. As a child, even before she had started riding lessons, Borglum drew angry-looking horse heads during the challenging time of her parents’ divorce. In her adult life, she struggled with a serious long-term illness, throughout which a horse appeared regularly in her dreams, a symbol of recovery and strength. 

Though she no longer owns horses, Borglum finds it is still ingrained in her to paint them. “I think that the draw to this subject is either rooted in what I went through as a kid or it goes even beyond what I’m aware of and is a generational imprint,” Borglum says. She explains that her grandmother’s uncles, Gutzon and Solom Borglum, were both artists well-known for paintings and sculpture that depicted horses and other elements of the American West in large-scale forms, with Gutzon Borglum being best known for his most famous sculpture, the Mt. Rushmore Memorial. Today, several of Borglum’s distant family members are also known artists and they, too, engage with horses as a prominent subject. 

While Borglum does feel an emotional connection with horses, she is also able to isolate the form of the horse as a meaningful subject for artistic interpretation. “At this point with me now, it has become all about gesture, lighting and line,” she says. “Having been a rider, I just happen to know the horse well enough that I can use him in that way, for expression through movement in my paintings, more effectively than if I use another form.”

Credit: Courtesy, Marilyn Borglum Borglum works in one of two ways when depicting horses—she creates drawings from life, which most often depict the horse in movement, or she paints more formal portraits, working from photographs.

The Artist’s Process
Borglum typically works in one of two ways when depicting horses. She does drawings from life, which most often depict the horse in movement, or paints more formal portraits, working from photographs. Of the drawings from life, Borglum explains, “They’re like sketches and it’s a focus on gesture drawing [a laying in of the action, form and pose of a model or figure]. Of course, the moving horse goes by very fast. You have the opportunity to make two or three lines each time the horse goes past. I love this and I get more joy from doing these drawings from life than probably anything else. But they have a completely different feel from the paintings.”

Credit: Courtesy, Marilyn Borglum Borglum explains how props, such as the drape, increase the level of challenge in a portrait and also serve to emphasize different elements of the equine form.

Laughing, Borglum adds, “I don’t know how the masters of the past [before photography] painted horses because it’s pretty difficult to get a horse to stand still!” For her more formal paintings, Borglum employs professional photographer Janice Fischer. The photo sessions incorporate props such as fabric drapes, fans and specific lighting or backdrops that serve to articulate various elements of the horse’s form or gesture. “When I work with Janice, I’m the one saying, ‘OK, let’s move the horse this way. Can we point the fan over here? Or let’s try with this backdrop,’” says Borglum. “[Fischer’s] the one pointing the camera and I’m relying on her to focus and get the shot.” 

Borglum explains how props such as the drape increase the level of challenge in a portrait and also serve to emphasize different elements of the equine form. “Really what I’m about with horse portraiture is some kind of flow and movement,” she says. “I’m going to take the drape and really use it to emphasize that. The drape adds an element, providing a contrasting texture by using different fabrics and color. The fans move the drape, helping to create a sense of atmosphere in the finished work. The fans are for flow—I really love if the drape is flowing in the same direction as the step the horse is taking or that his mane is blowing. It becomes the next step of difficulty for me, kind of challenging me. If I’m going to paint the horse for these reasons, as an exploration of form, gesture and line, I have to make it more complex.”

For her most formal studies of the equine form, Borglum frequently paints Urano VO, a Lusitano stallion owned by Lisa Diersen of the Royal Lusitano Farm in St. Charles, Illinois. According to Diersen, the 15-year-old stallion loves to model and show off. He was imported from Brazil as a 4-year-old and has been trained in classical French dressage. In the past, Urano has competed through Third Level, ridden by trainer Mario Contreras. Diersen says, “At this point, Urano is part beloved pet, part breeding stallion, part portrait model. He has done exhibitions and parades and we do lots of outreach and breed education.” 

Credit: Courtesy, Marilyn Borglum Urano’s curiosity and willingness to engage with the process during photo sessions set the stallion apart from many other horses Borglum has painted.

Diersen, who founded the annual Equus Film Festival, is passionate about carrying forth horsemanship traditions. She is convinced that artistic representation of the equine is one way to ensure public interest in horses and horsemanship, which is one reason Diersen is so enthusiastic about her collaborations with Borglum. “I first saw Marilyn’s work at an opening at a friend’s gallery,” Diersen explains. “Here she’s painted these incredible life-size horses, and I looked at the portrait and thought, This horse is just stunning but he’s not as beautiful as Urano,” Diersen says, laughing at herself.

Diersen asked Borglum to come and meet Urano, along with some of the other Lusitanos. When Borglum ultimately agreed to paint Urano, the first portrait featured him partly covered by a red drape. “When I first saw the finished work I started to cry,” recalls Diersen. “It was 10 feet tall and 13 feet wide. Looking at that painting, it just felt like he was breathing.”

According to Borglum, it takes planning and collaboration to achieve a successful photo session with Urano. “Usually Janice, Lisa and I sit down to go over the poses I am trying to accomplish beforehand,” she explains. “Depending on the number of different drapes or poses, the photo session can take the better part of the day as you might imagine. Lisa and Urano work tirelessly with Lisa handling him at my direction in order to redo a pose that is usually attempted dozens and dozens of times. This is another reason why Urano’s amazing disposition has been such an asset. I usually work the fans and Lisa manages that gorgeous horse
of hers if he is ever surprised by the changing fan position.” 

Borglum says Urano’s curiosity and willingness to engage with the process during photo sessions set the stallion apart from many other horses she has painted. “When we introduce props or various elements to Urano during the photo sessions, it seems like he’s saying ‘I think I can handle that. I’m a little freaked out about it, but I’ll do it.’ So he’s been great! I paint him over and over again.” Borglum emphasizes that in addition to Urano’s fantastic temperament, his coloring makes him uniquely suited to modeling for her work. Urano is a gray who has lightened to become almost completely white in coloring, which helps to underscore the classical look she is going for in the portraits.

Intense softness. Channeled engagement. Elusive insights. Precision. Power. These phrases, with which dressage enthusiasts will surely identify, are also words Borglum uses to describe the intentions of her work. Though she may be viewing the horse’s form as an objective subject, the horse lover who views her evocative portraits is also sure to experience a strong emotional response. Borglum agrees that this may be particularly true for followers of dressage. “If you’re somebody who is sensitive to what dressage is doing, that is a different experience from many other forms of riding,” she says. “I knew that the essential components of dressage were what I appreciated most about riding. This connects with the classical draped images in my work. It’s about the line and the arch of the neck, the gesture in movement, the energy as the horse moves himself forward. Integral elements of dressage are the elements of these paintings.”

Borglum’s work is sold at various galleries around the country as well as on her website, Information about commissioned portraits is also available on her site. 






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