Manchester Art Gallery

The Chariot Race

Object description

Wagner breathes life into this scene by casting the viewer into the path of the speeding horse-drawn chariots. The painting depicts a chariot race in the Circus Maximus, the oldest and largest in Rome, which occupied a long valley between the Aventine and Palatine hills. Chariot racing was the most popular sport in ancient Rome, appealing to all social classes. It was a highly dangerous sport: the chariots were light, built for speed, and offered no protection to the charioteers, who balanced on the axels as they hurtled around the arena. In the late-19th century, Munich was the centre of a school of painters specialising in the production of vast operatically-conceived reconstructions of historical events. Its founder, Karl von Piloty, was influenced by French and Belgian history painters such as Paul Delaroche and Louis Gallait. Wagner was one of Piloty's pupils. Born in Budapest, he trained in Vienna and Munich, and became Professor of Art at the Munich Academy. A painter of genre and landscape, he is best known for his epic scenes taken from Greek and Roman history. This painting vividly captures the wild excitement of the race, the perspective intended to satisfy the same popular taste for danger as would films in the following century.

Display label

The Chariot Race around 1882 Alexander von Wagner 1838 - 1919 Oil on canvas Wagner breathes life into this scene by making the viewer feel that they are in the path of the speeding horse-drawn chariots. Roman chariot racing was exhilarating but dangerous. In collisions, the flimsy chariots might easily smash and the charioteer could be dragged to death, or seriously injured, entangled in the long reins. Wagner may have been inspired by the novel Ben Hur, which was published in 1880. His academic training enabled him to paint convincingly the Ancient Roman architecture and costume which provides the backdrop to the drama of the race. Mrs H Higgins bequest 1898.12