A Horse is a Horse: FWMoA’s Looff Carousel Horse

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist

Driving through the Indiana countryside lately, I’ve begun to notice the early signs of spring as flowers begin to bloom and animals emerge from their winter hibernation. It made me think of the various animals that are in our Permanent Collection:  Kiki Smith’s Pool of Tears 2 showing  Lewis Carroll’s Alice escorted into a pool of deep water by a menagerie of creatures;Dennis McNett’s Rainbow Crows, portraying the Native American tale of crows receiving their inky plumage; Karel Appel’s Cat series; Duane Slick’s coyote iconography; John Steuart Curry’s docile circus Elephants; and Homer Davisson’s Under the Willows, Pennsylvania, where cattle rest in a summer landscape. There are wonderful creatures in some of our sculptural works, too – Paul Manship’s Moods of Time comes to mind, where owls symbolize night and roosters symbolize day.  And, of course, we can’t forget our delightful toy collection with its dozens of teddy bears, wind-up tin bunnies, and the pull-toy dog and little duck. But my favorite collection “critter” is our Prancer Carousel Horse from the 1890s, attributed to the Charles Looff carving shop. The provenance of our horse was confirmed by the National Carousel Association (NCA) in a 2010 email from Patrick Wentzel, who was a member of its Identification Committee at that time.

“The NCA Identification Committee enjoyed a good discussion about this wonderful antique carousel figure. This horse is a Looff prancer circa 1890’s.  The horse is in remarkable condition.  The horse is most likely an inner row figure. The horse would have originally operated on a stationary (non-jumping) carousel.  Stationary carousels are rare today in the U.S.” 

Frederick Fried, founder of the NCA and an authority on the American carousel, described Looff as “doubtlessly…the first of America’s great carousel carvers”.

Carl Jürgen Detlev Looff (1852-1918), who later changed his name to Charles Looff, was born to Danish parents in what was then Germany.  His father was a wagon-maker. Looff moved to America at 18 and settled in Brooklyn, working in the furniture-making trade beside many other immigrants who had also arrived with Old World wood-carving skills. These skills would be applied to furniture making, building, and, during this era of carousel mania, carving wooden animals. Looff began to carve animals in his spare time, and at the age of 24 built his first complete carousel. This was 1876, and the carousel at Vandeveer’s Bathing Pavilion at West Sixth Street and Surf Avenue would be the first of many in Coney Island. By the turn of the last century, there would be some two-dozen Coney Island carousels operating! Just think, our Prancer Horse was born in these early carousel days in Brooklyn, along with so many other wonderful carousel creatures that would delight and entertain millions of happy riders across America for decades.

A woman sits on a carousel horse.
Reginald Marsh, American, 1898-1954. Merry-Go-Round. Etching, 1938. Museum Purchase, 1965.49.

Soon after his successful debut, Looff launched his own carving shop in Brooklyn, and began to produce complete carousels for much of the East Coast. In fact, Brooklyn was the home of several carousel animal carving shops, and even launched a unique style known as the Coney Island School. Coney Island horses are known for their fiery expressions and dramatic stances with flying manes and arched necks, and they are often highly decorated and colorful. This flamboyant style is attributed to Jewish carvers from Eastern Europe whose carving skills were passed down over generations and who produced the elaborately decorative synagogue ornaments, like Torah Arks and Decalogues, once found in Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Russia. Many of these beautiful wooden synagogues were destroyed by fires during the attempts to annihilate Jews and their culture from this region of the world; however, remnants and a few photographs remain that include imagery of fantastical lions, eagles, and other religious creatures and symbols made of highly decorated carved wood. An exploration of this cultural connection was presented in 2007 by the American Museum of Folk Art in New York as Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel, curated by Murray Zimiles.  Our little horse was created before the Coney Island style peaked, and has the gentle, sweet face of an earlier time.  It may have been carved by one of the immigrant carvers employed by Looff as his carousel business prospered. It is known that master carver, Marcus Charles Illions, a Lithuanian Jew and one of the most creative and skilled carousel horse carvers known, made his start at Looff’s Brooklyn shop in the 1890s.

Here are a few interesting facts about carousel horses:

  • The outer-facing side of the horse is often more elaborately decorated than the inward-facing side, and is called “the romance side”
  • Many carousels have a “lead horse”, which is the grandest and most decorated horse on the carousel
  • Carousel horses are named for their stances as “jumpers’, “standers”, and “prancers”.

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