07/06/2016 3:00PM

Hovdey: Picavet had brushstrokes with greatness


This is not going to be a sad story. The sad part has already happened. The family, friends, and fans of Christine Picavet have dealt with the fact that she died last week at the age of 65 after a battle with cancer. She was at home in the town of Fallbrook, a northern San Diego County haven for artists, writers, and stray celebrities, a private person loved and admired by many, with a canvas on her easel and a painting in progress.

Instead, this is a story filled with the joy of Picavet’s work, the daunting perfection of her images, and the inspiring scope of a career that led her from the manicured paddocks of the world’s racing meccas to the wilds of America’s most rugged landscape.

Picavet’s work is immediately familiar. Even when she veered from Thoroughbreds to create works of Western art for patron R.D. Hubbard, there was always the welcoming Picavet style – precise in detail, rich in emotion, fearless in character and action.

As far as that goes, there is no creature who comes close to the horse in its variety of interpretation. The horses of Degas are prima ballerinas. Picasso’s are deconstructed and reassembled in various states of riot. Spend some time with the work of Franz Marc, and there is only one conclusion: All horses should be blue.

In terms of history, Picavet can be found firmly in place on a continuum of equine artists that includes George Stubbs, Alfred Munnings, and Richard Stone Reeves. Their fascination with the horse in all its forms – racing or posing, both intimate and majestic – is rendered in a style both warmly inviting and classically formal.

The list of great Thoroughbreds who were captured by Picavet’s brush is impossible to consume in one sitting. She painted Northern Dancer for George Blackwell, Exceller for Nelson Bunker Hunt, Alleged for Robert Sangster, John Henry for Sam Rubin, Storm Bird for Coolmore.

Although she was building a loyal clientele as a young artist in the late 1970s, it was Picavet’s vivid rendering of champion Landaluce in the wake of the filly’s death at age 2 in November 1982 that put the artist on the map. Lit by the filtered autumn sun of the Santa Anita gardens, on her way to be saddled for the Anoakia Stakes during Oak Tree, Picavet’s Landaluce is timeless. But for the artist, the painting itself was almost beside the point. For Picavet, it was more important that her image of Landaluce was used to raise funds for research into the Colitis-X that killed her.

Picavet’s dedication to her craft was rivaled only by her devotion to the welfare of the horse. She was a consistent, outspoken advocate for the cause and often put her paintings to effective use. She was always going to paint Zenyatta, for instance, but when she did – a magnificent, full-bodied study of the mare pulling groom Mario Espinoza across a stretch of grass at Oaklawn Park – the sales of the limited edition went to one of her favored organizations, Southern California Thoroughbred Rescue.

Nina Kaiser, whose life-size bronze sculptures of Zenyatta and John Henry adorn Santa Anita’s grandstand gardens, bore witness to Picavet’s career from the start. Kaiser galloped horses for Eddie Gregson, while Picavet did the same for Charlie Whittingham.

“I never forget her finishing work, still in her chaps, and carrying a large canvas to deliver to someone in another barn,” Kaiser said. “At the time, I kind of had a thought that I could do that. But then, when I really saw how good she was, I decided to turn to sculpture. I couldn’t compete with that.”

Kaiser laughed a little at the memory, but only a little. The loss of her friend was still raw.

“There are people who will say, ‘That’ll do,’ and move on,” Kaiser said. “Then there are people like Christine, who stay with the work when everyone else might say, ‘That’s fine.’ She wanted it as perfect as she could get it.”

And her horses were perfect, or as close to perfect as nature would allow.

Sunday Silence was a ferocious, fretting Thoroughbred who rarely came to rest long enough to appreciate in full. Picavet got him, though, in a striking moment against a natural backdrop, his dark coat kissed by glints of low sunlight, his impertinent head and stallion’s neck framed by a burst of cloud on the horizon.

Free House was all legs and sense of humor, a dappled gray punch line whose life on this earth ended far too soon. Picavet captured him in all his impudent glory, eye popped and ears almost twitching with curiosity, his attention off to one side and amused, as if a cow had just fallen in a nearby pasture.

Free House was one of nine winners of the Pacific Classic painted by Picavet on commission from the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. Copies of her originals will be on display again in the clubhouse when the track opens July 15.

Each of the nine received his own special treatment. Most recently, she did Acclamation, the winner in 2011, and before that Skimming, Student Council, Richard’s Kid, Cigar, Came Home, Bertrando, and Candy Ride. As far as this corner is concerned, Candy Ride is the best, and not only because Picavet placed the horse and jockey Julie Krone, the lady of this house, in the iconic Del Mar walking ring for posterity.