By Don Rosendale
Sketching a picture of a horse seems easy. Like there is a head and four legs and a tail and…. until you pick up a pencil and find out why there are only a handful of successful equine portrait painters in the country.
If you listen to the expert at Sotheby’s, the art gallery, as I did in search of a Christmas present for myself, you’ll find that one of the best equine painters is right here in the Hudson Valley. His named is Leland Neff. Sotheby’s compared him to Alfred Munnings, the renowned English painter. Munnings was a favorite of the Downtown Abbey set who would commission him to paint an oil on their favorite steed in the fox hunting field - elegant ladies riding side saddle (“aside” rather than “astride” as those in the know will inform you) with flowing apron, top hat and veil. You can pick up one of those Munnings today for around $300,000 if you shop carefully.
I found Neff in Breakabeen on the West Side of the Hudson, where I learned why one of the country’s top fashion photographers had forsaken a six figure practice and Dom Perignon lifestyle in the Hamptons to breed and paint horses in a remote place where the nearest watering hole is a bar selling $1 beers.
Once you get past the $1 beer tavern in Middleburgh, Route 30 will take you to Breakabeen and then to the 150-acre farm where Neff paints, teaches painting classes and splits his own firewood.
Neff is the son of a Navy fighter pilot, and product of anomadic life. He was born in Virginia and moved to Texas, where at the age of three he saw a mare with a white foal and was instantly entranced. He learned to ride by being propped up onto a barrel racing horse and for the next two years rode in Texas rodeos.
He had his first art show when he was six in his mother’s home town of Conesus. By the age of 13 his paintings were hanging in galleries.
He graduated magna cum laude from New York’s Pratt Institute and the college honored him with a one man show. But instead of a paint palette, Leland’s work for the next few years was with Kodachrome, because he found photographers got paid 10 times as much as illustrators.
He snapped photos for high fashion ads for Bergdorf, Burberry, Bloomingdale’s and Barney’s, and fashion spreads for Estee Lauder, Clairol and Revlon. It was a life he recalls that kept him on planes from New York to Europe.
His epiphany came when he attended the Hamptons Classic horse show on Long Island. “This is where I belong” he decided and began painting horses and riders. When he wasn’t in the Hamptons he was at the Saratoga racetrack painting jockeys and race horses. Notable among these is an iconic one of Rachel Alexander, the filly who won the 2009 Preakness, so popular it is on a line of postcards.
Today, the owners of a famous racehorse like California Chrome, routinely hire Neff to do an oil of their horses. He’s diffident about his prices, only saying they start at $3,500. His large scale commissioned paintings, like that of Rachel Alexander, can cost as much as $20,000. One of my neighbor’s has one framed over her fireplace, and told me in a weak moment she’d paid over $10,000.
But when indulging yourself for Christmas, what’s that? A case of a grand cru Bordeaux from Zachy’s costs more than $10,000, and so does a Rolex. But maybe a century from now your grandkids will take the family Neff to Sotheby’s or Christie’s and boast “He was the American Alfred Munnings.”