Most of us do things in our youth which we wouldn’t dare try when we have gained the wisdom of age. For Ivan Mazepa (1639–1709), who became a ‘Prince’ of the Holy Roman Empire, one of Europe’s largest landowners, Hetman of the Ukrainian Cossacks, and a patron of the arts, it was a youthful indiscretion at the Polish royal court, with Madam Falbowska, so the story goes.
In time, his affair grew into one with a Countess who was married to an older Count, who punished the young Mazeppa (who had acquired an extra ‘p’ in the process) by strapping him naked to the back of a wild horse, and setting the horse loose.
This legend had acquired sufficient credence for it to be recorded in Voltaire’s History of Charles XII, King of Sweden (1731), which seems to have caught Lord Byron’s eye when he was seeking inspiration for a narrative poem. What emerged from Byron’s pen was further embroidery, which was almost instantly successful with several of the great painters of the day.
Byron’s Mazeppa, published in 1819, served as a page at the Court of King John II Casimir Vasa, and had an affair with a Countess Theresa. Much of the poem details the suffering and endurance of Mazeppa during his long journey on the back of the horse. Most significantly, it was immediately translated into French.
Among the first artists to paint Mazeppa was the ailing Théodore Géricault, here in his first study from about 1820. The wild horse has just swum across a river at night, and is now climbing up the bank. The viewer is almost guaranteed to wince in sympathy with the Cossack’s cold and pain.
In what must have been one of his last paintings, Géricault revisited Mazeppa in 1823, the year before his death, in part from cumulative effects of injuries from his horseriding.
The following year, Eugène Delacroix painted the end of the story, with Mazeppa on the Dying Horse (1824). This looks as if he may have intended painting a more finished version, but I have been unable to locate that, if he did.
Next up was Horace Vernet, who painted this marvellously painterly study of Mazeppa in 1826. Vernet’s horse is now being pursued by wolves.
Vernet’s finished Mazeppa and the Wolves (1826) gains detail, and its smooth paint surface, at the expense of the study’s spontaneity and speed. But this enables him to show the wolves in their fearsome detail.
A former signwriter, John Frederick Herring’s talent was recognised during the 1820s, and he painted portraits of racehorses. I don’t know when he saw Vernet’s painting, but in 1833 Herring made a copy which is now in the Tate: Mazeppa Pursued by Wolves (after Horace Vernet).
Herring also painted Mazeppa Surrounded by Horses (after Horace Vernet) at about the same time; if it too was a copy of a Vernet, then the original seems to have been lost. Mazeppa’s mount has here finally reached its journey’s end, and the Cossack is undoing his bonds.
Nathaniel Currier used Herring’s second painting as the basis for his lithograph of Mazeppa Surrounded by Wild Horses in 1846. This is one of a set of four which were apparently commercially successful.
Byron’s poem ends when Mazeppa wakes up in bed, having been rescued from unconsciousness by a “Cossack Maid”, who then tends his wounds.
It wasn’t until 1851 that Théodore Chassériau anticipated this ending in A Young Cossack Woman Finds Mazeppa Unconscious on a Wild Horse. As in Byron’s poem, there are ravens flying overhead, waiting to feed on Mazeppa’s corpse.
After just over thirty years of fame in painting, Mazeppa’s legend faded. It was kept alive in music, but most significantly transferred into live equestrian acts in burlesque. Its final twist there was to cast a pretty young woman in the role of Mazeppa – making a nonsense of the legend – and for her to wear nothing more than a flesh-coloured body stocking.
Doing just that was what made the former painter Adah Isaacs Menken (1835-1868) famous in the early 1860s. Having shocked audiences in New York, she took her act to London and Paris, where she rode to packed houses, before dying in poverty in Paris.