DEGAS’ HORSES

BY DEBORAH CASILLAS

Degas’ horses were wrong
at first. At a gallop the legs blurred
beyond the eye’s seeing. Even
Gericault painted them bounding
like a deer. It was only
prancing, rearing, walking,
that the artists got right. Then
Muybridge made his photographs,
a series of cameras
clicking as the horse passed
so the exact sequence of the stride
was understood, the front legs lifting,
stretching, the muscled haunches
propelling the body forward,
the amazing moment when no hoof
is on the ground and the horse
and rider are suspended, freed
from the earth, lifted by muscles,
tendons, the delicate, impossible
cannon bone that bears
the weight and springs again.
How Degas, not himself a rider,
understood that finally,
modeling in the third dimension
so he could feel the motion
in his hands and transfer it to
canvas. In the bronzes cast
from wax models after his death
you can see his fingers probing,
finding the movement, the way
the neck stretches, the angle
of the head. Some of the horses
are incomplete, a leg half missing,
a partial jaw, the tail left off,
as if all he needed were the muscles
where the stride begins, the gesture
of the shoulder reaching forward.