Opinion  October 21, 2021  Mary M. Lane

Reframed: Quidor’s “Headless Horseman”

Smithsonian American Art Museum.

John Quidor, The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, 1858. 

The October 2021 Focus for Reframed is Ghoulish

As a child in school, reading and discussing Washington Irving’s 1820 short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, always seemed like a trick teachers were playing on us students. 

The protagonist, Ichabod Crane, is a town’s weakling schoolteacher in upstate New York, who is literally chased out of town by Brom Bones, a philistine resident competing with Crane for the affections of the wealthy and young Dutch immigrant Katrina Van Tassel.

None of the characters is particularly likable; Brom is a lout, Katrina is a snob and Ichabod is generally incompetent, but one always gets the feeling that teachers want us to sympathize with Ichabod and, in doing so, have some sort of blanket sympathy for teachers in general, including those as incompetent as Ichabod.

As shown in John Quidor’s 1858 painting in the Smithsonian, Brom disguises himself as a decapitated ghost, carrying a pumpkin that Ichabod believes to be his cut off head, the reason why the story is so often associated with Halloween. Quidor is rather generous to Ichabod, showing him riding bareback whereas in Irving’s telling, Ichabod is so incompetent that his saddle falls off his horse during Brom’s pursuit. 

Upon its creation, Quidor’s painting was widely panned by art critics for being too dark and focusing more on the woodland nature around the two men than on the chase itself. In many ways, however, this was a clever choice by Quidor, whose perspective reveals the two men for what they are: immature characters fighting over a young woman who is attracted to neither of them. The horses in the painting are also anatomically inaccurate, a topic this column has previously addressed in art.

Smithsonian American Art Museum.

John Quidor, detail of The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, 1858.

Curiously, the real victim of Sleepy Hollow's success was the real-life Ichabod Crane, a U.S. Marine major stationed with Washington Irving at Fort Pike in upstate New York. Irving was fond of writing down unique names and giving them to his characters and after the success of Sleepy Hollow, the real Ichabod was hounded for the rest of his life by enthusiasts of the tale. 

Having the same name as the main character in the 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film Reefer Madness, this author can certainly sympathize with Major Crane.

About the Author

Mary M. Lane

Mary M. Lane is an art market journalist, an art historian, and the author of Hitler's Last Hostages: Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich. Reach her on Twitter: MaryLaneWSJ and Instagram: MaryLaneAuthor

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