This lovely painted figure of a horse, probably a lucky child's favorite toy, is one of several thought to have been made by an unidentified carver working in the area of Carlisle, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. This example has a virtual mate; they share like construction, decoration, and overall proportions. Rocking hobbyhorses, or pull-horses on platforms with wheels, were among the most popular of children's toys during the nineteenth century. Inexpensive carved and painted toys imported from the Bavarian regions of Germany and the Austrian Tyrol were popular among the Pennsylvania Germans and may have served as prototypes for locally carved versions.
While the pieced, laminated multipart construction utilized on this horse is similar to that seen on the imported versions, its bold, steady proportions and spirited stance suggest the free, individual interpretation characteristic of a number of folk carvings produced in Pennsylvania during the period. The three elements composing the head and body were first joined together and their shape refined to receive the separate front and back leg elements, which are pinned and glued in place. The extended rounded end at the top of the separate carved tail was then inserted and glued into the rear, and, once assembled, all the joints were further refined with a rasp and knife blade. The painted decoration, consisting of freehand-applied spots over a white ground with a contrasting red tail and black harness, are laid down directly on the bare, unprimed wood.
This horse has long been regarded as one of the icons of American folk art because of its inclusion in a number of landmark exhibitions, its frequent discussion in a number of early significant publications on American folk art, and its early ownership in the collection of pioneering folk art dealer and collector Edith Gregor Halpert. Halpert's involvement with the circle of artists in Ogunquit, Maine, and her Downtown Gallery in New York's Greenwich Village placed her among the first influential figures in American art circles to promote the appreciation and study of traditional American folk aesthetics. Her clientele, some of the most important early collectors in the field, included Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Electra Havemeyer Webb, Ima Hogg, Henry Ford, Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, and Juliana Force.
Jack L. Lindsey, "Horse Toy," in Stacy C. Hollander, American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum (New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with American Folk Art Museum, 2001), 456.