Arts & Culture

A Renowned Sporting Artist’s Bluegrass Muse

The Polish-born painter Andre Pater found his calling amid the rolling hills and stone fences of Kentucky horse country, where his gift for capturing the soul of his subjects has taken him to the pinnacle of the sporting art world

Photo: Josh Merideth

From left: Bwamazon Farm – Darby Dan Farm, pastel on paper, 36 x 30 inches, 1999; Dixiana Farm – Hasty House Farm, pastel on paper, 36 x 30 inches, 1999.

There are a number of ways to size up the impact of a painting: by the number of tourists willing to squeeze into a museum gallery to catch a fleeting glimpse of it, for example, or by the small fortunes (or large ones) auction participants will bid to obtain it. On rare occasions, someone reacts to a painting in the pure and unfiltered way a woman named Lilla Mason did, when she first laid eyes on a certain work by Andre Pater.

Pater is a Polish American painter who, experts and collectors agree, ranks among the greatest sporting artists alive, an heir to the mantles of such legends of the field as George Stubbs and Sir Alfred Munnings, British painters of centuries past who are lauded, in particular, for their masterful depictions of horses. Several years ago, Pater (the name’s pronounced “potter”) began donating works he had painted, typically one a year, to the Iroquois Hunt Club, a prestigious foxhunting society founded in 1880 in his adopted hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, of which he is a member. The club auctions the paintings to raise money for the Hound Welfare Fund, a nonprofit club members started to provide a carefree retirement for hounds that, because of age or injury, no longer take part in the chase. For one of the first fundraisers, Pater created a pastel portrait of a beloved old English foxhound named Captain—gazing from the canvas, resolute and bejowled, like a canine Winston Churchill. Once he’d completed the piece, he invited Mason, who serves as one of the club’s masters of hounds and who exudes calm competence, to stop by his studio to take a look. Okay, Mason thought, that’ll be fine. But when Pater showed her the finished portrait, she says, “I burst into tears.”

Photo: Josh Merideth

Andre Pater at Lexington’s Iroquois Hunt Club, in a limestone gristmill more than two hundred years old, where the artist socializes.

“He just captured his essence,” she says, wearing a smart green Barbour jacket and standing in the kennel at Miller Trust Farm outside Lexington, where seventy-six hounds—retirees, active hunters, and pups—are noisily living the dream. “The way he sat, the way he cocked his head. Everything.”

That artistic power—that shock of recognition at seeing how Pater marshals brush and pigment to transfer the soul of his subject onto canvas—helps explain why the last four decades have taken him on a long, steady trek toward the summit of the sporting-art world. A perfectionist widely known for his luminous renditions of horses, jockeys, polo players, gundogs, and of course hounds, Pater, who is sixty-seven, mostly paints on commission but refuses to rush the outcome. He’s made portraits of an equine who’s who of celebrity Thoroughbreds: Secretariat, Smarty Jones, Justify, Barbaro. His “patrons,” as he calls them, include the revered Kentucky racecourse and auction house Keeneland, the former ambassador to the United Kingdom (and renowned horse breeder who owns Lane’s End Farm) William S. Farish III, the Duke of Devonshire, the ruler of Dubai, and assorted other horse breeders, trainers, sheikhs, and art collectors. “This kind of quality doesn’t come along very often,” explains Greg Ladd, the founder and owner of Lexington’s Cross Gate Gallery and a longtime friend and business partner of Pater’s. “Nothing gets turned loose until Andre is ready to turn it loose. He turns a wonderful painting into a jewel.”

The Miller farm is one of the stops along a circuit the artist is guiding me through, a sort of Tour de Pater around Lexington and its environs, as we cruise the town in his silver Mercedes SUV to places that inspire him or mark turning points in what he calls “my trajectory as a sporting artist.” He says of himself and his family, “Lexington has shaped us in many ways.” He has embraced the Bluegrass, it soon becomes clear, and it has embraced him right back.

On the same afternoon as our kennel visit, Pater is sitting across from me in a booth at a Waffle House near the interstate, hunched like a gargoyle over a Texas Cheesesteak Melt. (“Once a year, it’s okay.”) He has close-cropped white hair, twinkling slate-blue eyes, angular Slavic features, and the arched eyebrows of a Cold War–era Bond villain. He is gregarious and animated and gestures and points constantly, even while driving—slashing, chopping the air, pounding on invisible piano keys, clutching my forearm to emphasize a point.

Here is the scouting report on Andre Pater: writes with his right hand. Paints lefty, which is why most of his equine portraits show the horses facing right, rather than left as in typical conformation paintings; it’s easier that way. He usually works off of photographs he has taken, or sometimes sketches or live models; one of his best models, for a series of retro portraits paying tribute to African American jockeys, was a suitably small-framed young man he first spotted at the car wash. “Andre’s spent hours down there with the hounds, just sitting on a bench,” says his friend Jerry Miller, owner of Miller Trust Farm and himself a former master of hounds for Iroquois. Sometimes Pater will arrange for more than one photo session with an animal subject, often noticing things down the line that he overlooked at first. “We all have a certain way of acting or reacting,” he says, “and animals do that too. I really enjoy doing portraits of horses. It’s hard to say that these are psychological portraits, but the way the animals present themselves, the way they connect with you—you can learn a lot about the horse. When animals are curious, it’s an indication of their intellectual level.” Of elite Thoroughbreds he says, “They know who they are. You think that they don’t know? They know.”

Photo: Josh Merideth

Barbaro, pastel on board, 26 x 30 inches, 2007.

In the studio, he paints with classical or jazz playing in the background (“Silence is too loud”). When he’s hitting his stride on a project, says his wife, Kasia, who like Andre grew up in Kraków, Poland, he “works strange hours. He’s an owl. He’ll go to eleven, or midnight.” He hasn’t ridden horseback himself for decades, giving it up after a mount he was riding—a scion of the famous stallion Northern Dancer—reared repeatedly, breaking Andre’s nose and knocking him unconscious. He dislikes discussing what he charges for a commission, but when pressed confides his fees start at around $50,000, and horse portraits run more like $125,000. When he completes a painting, he says, “I hate it. But after a few months or a year, I think, This is nice. After a few years, even better.” His spur-of-the-moment decision to move to Lexington in 1988, he says, came “out of blue,” without consulting Kasia. “I think it’s God touch, or will or whatever. I made this decision completely irrational.”

Photo: Josh Merideth

Pater in his studio with Two German Shorthaired Pointers with Pheasants, pastel on board, 26 x 34 inches, 2002.

In truth, his life story contains enough unlikely plot twists and serendipitous choices that one could be forgiven for wondering if invisible currents of some sort really have been steering him along. Born in 1953, he grew up in Communist-bloc Poland. Even as a child he loved horses, including Arabians, which have played a starring role for four hundred years of Polish history, heroes of storied battles against the Ottoman Turks. He gawked at them at farmers’ markets and in paintings in galleries and museums during outings with his grandmother, and took to drawing them early and often. After studying interior architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, in his twenties he decided to give living in New York City a try, “just to fool around,” and booked a flight for January 1982. Then, moved by a strong and inexplicable urge to depart sooner, he had a contact at the airline pull strings to get him on an earlier flight. Pater flew out of Warsaw on November 21, 1981. On December 13, Poland’s Communist regime declared martial law, and tanks rumbled through the streets of the capital. “This changed completely everything,” Pater says. Had he remained in Poland just three weeks longer, he couldn’t have left for years to come. But his future awaited him elsewhere.

After several months in New York—“I started in a French restaurant in Manhattan as a vegetable peeler and ended up sous chef”—and despite not speaking English at first, he took a position at a design firm in Dallas, where he painted on weekends and exhibited in local galleries. His talent soon drew the attention of Arabian-horse aficionados, and at a 1984 auction, he sold all fifteen paintings he’d submitted, and even some sketches he’d drawn impromptu during a quick-draw competition. In 1987, his next happy accident occurred: Visiting Kentucky for an Arabian-horse show in Louisville, he “made the wrong exit” and found himself amid the undulating horse farms and elegantly lichened limestone fences around Lexington. “It was October, Saturday, beautiful sunny day, colors of the autumn. This is how I was hooked.”

He and Kasia moved there the next year, and Pater gradually made the leap to painting Thoroughbreds, bigger and faster than Arabians, and other sporting and pastoral themes: jockeys, gundogs with quail, hunting hounds, cattle. (In Kentucky, he tells me, “wherever you turn there are cows. Cows cows cows cows cows.”) For six years he worked out of a studio in an old pool house on the farm of Penny Chenery, who owned the 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat. In 1998, Keeneland executive Ted Bassett, at Greg Ladd’s urging, commissioned him to produce twelve pastels of jockeys wearing the signature silks of prominent horse breeders, which remain on the walls of the track’s second-floor club. That exposure, says Bassett when Pater and I stop by for a chat in his office in a limestone cottage at Keeneland (where he still shows up, at a remarkable ninety-eight years old, six days a week), “gave him the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. It really sort of opened the floodgates.” Pater’s name recognition and commissions snowballed. Exhibitions followed at Cross Gate, at the University of Kentucky’s art museum during the 2010 World Equestrian Games, at the Governor’s Mansion in Frankfort in 2015, at the National Sporting Library & Museum in Middleburg, Virginia, two years later. In 2019, the Headley-Whitney Museum of Art in Lexington hosted a retrospective of more than ninety of his pieces, many on loan from private collections.

Photo: Josh Merideth

Hermitage Farm – Dogwood Stable, pastel on paper, 36 x 30 inches, 1999.

Early on in his Kentucky tenure, Pater and Ladd logged countless road trips in a van loaded down with paintings, showing his work during races and other events in equestrian meccas like Saratoga Springs, New York; Camden, South Carolina; and Palm Beach, Florida. At a milestone exhibition of thirty-one of Pater’s paintings at London’s Sladmore Gallery in 2002, interested admirers (many of them American clients who flew over for the occasion) lined up for hours before the opening reception. When the event began that evening, Ladd says, “before Andre got there twenty minutes later, it was completely sold out.” Pater’s first solo exhibition, in the early 1990s, had grossed about $27,500 total, Ladd says; “the show in London averaged about $27,500” per painting. Clearly, Pater had arrived, but there was more to come. At a Keeneland auction of sporting art four years ago, his portrait of a Lakota warrior, titled Red Arrow, 2016, sold for $276,000.

“There’s nobody I know who lost money on my paintings,” Pater says with bemusement. “People come to me and say, ‘I should have bought you ten years ago.’ Yeah, you should—why didn’t you?”

Photo: Josh Merideth

Pater works on Old Friends, an equestrian portrait, in his studio.

“This is absolutely fabulous place, Kentucky,” Pater says as we wind along a country two-lane through the rolling pastures outside the town of Paris in Bourbon County, twenty minutes or so northeast of Lexington. “Look at those stone fences.”

We’re on our way to one of our final stops, a horse farm of more than a thousand acres called Xalapa, founded in 1827. Its new owner, a high-rolling breeder from Canada named John Sikura, bought the historic property just last summer after selling Hill ’n’ Dale, his previous Lexington horse operation, and he’s pouring untold sums into Xalapa (the X is silent) to restore its buildings and upgrade its facilities. He owns three of Pater’s paintings, including one of a treasured mare who had to be put down not long before Pater painted her. Pater’s success has granted him entrée into Lexington society and access to players like Sikura, and he seems to revel in that more than the proceeds of his commissions—in the front-row seat he now has to observe, up close, people with the means to take on big, bold dreams. He scrutinizes them as he scrutinizes a racehorse, as he studies a pack of foxhounds on the run. “He’s man of crazy ideas,” Pater says about Sikura. “He’s unbridled. He told me, ‘Andre, a chance like this you only have once in your lifetime.’ This is what I love about America. In Europe, it’s different—it’s built for generations. Here, people make fortune in a lifetime. Three generations, it’s gone. This is the recipe for American wealth. This kind of unbridled imagination—this is what has me freaking out. It’s what I like about life.”

When we arrive, Sikura greets us in his mud-splattered pickup and takes us on a tour of the estate, many of its contours sculpted generations ago under the lead of Jens Jensen, a Danish-born landscape architect who also oversaw projects for Henry Ford. The makers of Seabiscuit shot scenes here. Sikura points out limestone bridges arching over creeks, miles of stone walls stacked by hand, thick stands of hickory, old stone cottages each with its own icehouse. Wild turkeys scamper on a hillside where horses lounge in the sun. A vintage stallion barn built of stone and concrete, he tells us, boasts 4,600 windowpanes, all original glass. Crews have built six new horse barns, near a mile-long training track, since Sikura took possession. “We’ll have several hundred horses here when we’re done,” he says. It’s all breathtakingly gorgeous, a Bluegrass riff on Citizen Kane’s Xanadu.

Before we leave, Sikura parks his truck at an old stone millhouse. Inside, oversize iron hinges forged in a blacksmith shop on the farm adorn doors fit for a castle, and massive timbers serve as beams. Just after we step outside the building, as if on cue, a river otter pokes its head out of the greenish-flowing creek below a small dam, peering in our direction to see what’s going on.

Pater is delighted, practically beside himself, and furiously starts snapping shots of the curious onlooker with the Nikon hung around his neck. “John, it’s awesome!” he cries, grinning and scurrying closer to the bank. “It’s unbelievable!” Once again here in Kentucky, as has happened so many times before, everything seems to be going Andre Pater’s way. 

This article appears in the June/July 2020 issue of  Garden & Gun. Start your subscription here or give a gift subscription here.