Here’s a curious fact: if a painting shows horses galloping, you can date the painting based on how its horses are depicted to be running.
Before the 19th century, artists were unsure of how horses actually trotted or galloped. Artists would often show horses moving with all four hooves extended off the ground, as if they were flying through the air.
This painting by Théodore Géricault gives a good example. Galloping horses never have all four legs extended as shown.
But then someone came around who would show once and for all how horses ran.
A man named Eadweard Muybridge got a photographic assignment in 1872 to study the way horses move.
Much debate circulated at the time about how horses moved, which was difficult to discern with the naked eye. Horses simply galloped too fast to know for sure.
So Muybridge, a professional photographer, accepted a job from a race horse owner and set up a system to record a trotting horse. He started by presenting a single picture of a horse trotting. Later, he used a faster shutter speed to capture more images in a row that more accurately represented the horse’s gait.
These images were made into lantern slides to animate the action.
Muybridge also set up a system to capture a horse at a gallop. He put large glass-plate cameras along a track,with each attached to a thread that triggered the cameras as the horse rode by.
Muybridge named the study Sallie Gardner at a Gallop or The Horse in Motion. The images proved that horses do not in fact run with all legs extended, but instead that horses have their legs collected beneath their body in the air.
From then on, artists and scientists had no reason to be confused by horses’ movement. The images were there for everyone to see.
Muybridge did later motion studies, including animations involving phenakistoscopes.
Many people were inspired and influenced by Muybridge’s work in motion, including Marcel Duchamp, the artist who created the controversial and influential piece Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.