Cutting-edge analysis reveals modern additions to historic dancing horse statue at Cincinnati Art Museum

By | 10/09/2022

A collaboration between fine art historians and researchers in Cincinnati has solved a 1,300-year-quondam mystery involving an imperial Chinese sculpture of a dancing horse.

The Dancing Horse sculpture at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Image credits Cincinnati Art Museum.

Dancing horses have been a pop sight at the court of Imperial Red china. These animals were specifically trained to move in time with a drumbeat — essentially, dancing. Bear witness of dancing horses performing for emperors dates as far back every bit 202 B.C.

One particular fan of them was Emperor Xuanzong from the 8th century who, historical accounts say, had a personal stable of over 40,000 horses. For ane of his birthday celebrations, the Emperor in one case invited a troupe of 400 dancing horses to perform the “Vocal of the Upturned Loving cup.” So great was the popularity that these animals enjoyed at the courts of China’southward emperors, that a tradition of commissioning sculptures of dancing horses to identify in regal tombs began during the Tang dynasty.

The Cincinnati Dancing Horse

“During the dramatic finale, 1 horse would bend its knees and clamp a cup in its mouth and offer wine to the ruler to wish him longevity,” says Hou-mei Sung, East Asian fine art curator at the Cincinnati Art Museum. “This became a ritual.”

The Cincinnati Fine art Museum received i such statue in 1997, as a donation from a private collector. The terracotta sculpture is some 1,300 years old and incredibly realistic with a very dynamic pose, only East Asian art curator Hou-mei Sung had doubts regarding its authenticity.

The chief point of business concern was a decorative tassel on the equus caballus’due south forehead which resembles a unicorn horn. Such an element is completely out of place on these statues, he explains, every bit no other dancing equus caballus statue is known to have such tassels.

In order to make up one’s mind the authenticity of the statue, the museum turned to the University of Cincinnati for assistance. Pietro Strobbia, a UC College of Arts and Sciences assistant professor of chemistry took upward the job and set out to determine whether the tassel was office of the original work or added subsequently.

“Many museums take a conservator only not necessarily scientific facilities needed to exercise this kind of examination,” Strobbia said. “The forehead tassel looks original, simply the museum asked us to determine what materials information technology was made from.”

The museum’s horse statue is saddled with a coating and flowing silken material. X conical tassels consummate the animal’s adornments. “The making of the sculpture is beautiful. These horses are renowned,” said Kelly Rectenwald, associate objects conservator at the Cincinnati Art Museum and co-author of the paper describing the analysis of the statue.

Despite her background in archaeology and chemistry, Rectenwald said the museum lacked the specialized equipment and knowledge needed to truly investigate the nature of the suspect tassel without damaging the statue. Strobbia, meanwhile, has always had a personal involvement in fine art — so this was an platonic lucifer from the get-become.

For the research, the museum agreed to allow Strobbia and his collaborators to have 11 tiny samples of the statue for assay. This was a calculated chance-reward cess past the Museum, Rectenwald explains.

These samples were examined using a host of molecular, chemic, and mineralogical testing methods. These included land-of-the-fine art approaches such as 10-ray powder diffraction, ionic chromatography, and Raman spectroscopy.

According to the results, the tassel on the statue’s brow was indeed not part of the original statue. It was made of plaster, not terra cotta, and was added to the piece using creature gum.

Following the findings, the museum decided to remove the tassel to bring the artwork closer to its original land. Rectenwald reports that the area underneath the tassel was shine and showed no signs of scoring, which is a typical occurrence beneath areas of sculptural adornments. Two other tassels on the horse were repaired at different times in its past, suggesting that in that location was ongoing involvement in maintaining and restoring this sculpture over several centuries.

“It was restored at least twice in its lifetime,” Rectenwald said. “Finding anything new about an artwork is really interesting.”

The team hopes that the work they performed with this statue will be used to create assay methodologies for other pieces at museums effectually the US.

The paper “Scientific investigation to await into the conservation history of a Tang Dynasty terracotta Dancing Horse” has been published in the periodical
Heritage Science.