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December 1941–March 1942
Max Ernst settled in New York in 1941 after escaping from Europe with the help of Peggy Guggenheim. The same year he executed a small oil on cardboard that became the basis for this work. When Peggy saw the small version, she interpreted a dainty horse-human figure on the right as Ernst, who was being fondled by a woman she identified as herself, while Ernst conceded that a third figure, depicted in a three-quarter rear view, was her daughter Pegeen. When Ernst undertook this large version he changed the body of the “Peggy” figure into a greenish column and transferred her amorous gesture to a new character, who wears a pink tunic and is depicted in a relatively naturalistic way. The “Pegeen” figure in the center appears to have two faces, one of a flayed horse that looks at the horse-woman at the left. The other, with only its cheek and jaw visible, gazes in the opposite direction, out over the grim lagoon.
The great upheavals in Ernst’s personal life during this period encourage a biographical interpretation. Despite his marriage to Peggy, he was deeply involved with Leonora Carrington at this time. As birds were an obsession for Ernst, so horses were for Carrington. It seems plausible that the alienated horse-woman represents a vision of Peggy: like the triumphal bride in Attirement of the Bride, she wears an owl headgear. Her irreconcilable separation from her companion is expressed graphically by the device of the diagonally positioned spear that bisects the canvas. The features of the green totemic figure resemble those of Carrington, whose relationship with Ernst was to end soon after the painting was completed.