A painting with a story in the Gladbrook Heritage Museum

Pharoah Horse, a painting by a Gold Star Mother in Gladbrook, Iowa


I was in Gladbrook, Iowa over this past weekend, traveling with family and attending the Corn Carnival. One place that I enjoyed visiting in town was the Gladbrook Heritage Museum, which is located on the 2nd floor of the Gladbrook City Center on 2nd Street. The Heritage Museum is a one room venue loaded with historical objects and hand-written notes explaining most of them.

This painting of three horses grabbed my attention, and as you can see below left, it was simply leaned up against the wall, resting on the floor behind a cardboard box filled with papers and next to a full length men’s fur coat. As you can see from both pictures below, it’s an extremely well-done painting in an ornate carved wood frame, and the level of detail in the horses’ veins and the light reflected in their eyes shows the hand of a very talented artist.

Pharoah Horse, a painting by a Gold Star Mother in Gladbrook, Iowa
“Pharaoh Horse,” 1944, painted by Gold Star Mother Lelia King, as seen in the Gladbrook Heritage Museum.

The handwritten note taped to the top left of the frame explains the following:

“1944 – Mrs. J.O. King (Lelia 1870 – 1949), Gold Star Mother. Presented picture she had painted titled Pharaoh Horse in memory of her son Earl to the Legion Hall. He was killed in France WWII. She was active in the Gladbrook Community, organizing the Federated Women’s Club and Gladbrook Public Library.”

So this is interesting in its own right, a Gold Star Mother making an amazing painting to honor her son’s sacrifice for the war effort in World War II. But the talent and skill evident in this painting has me curious to learn more. Was Lelia King simply a talented “Sunday painter” who made art for her own enjoyment and in this case to honor her son? Can I find any other art works by her? Was she a well-known artist?

I did learn a few things: Lelia Stewart (maiden name) was born in Gladbrook in 1870, and married Joseph O. King in 1889 at the age of 19. Online records are clearly missing a few details, as I see a reference to a single son named Laverne Joseph King, but the suggested date of his passing is 1933, which would clearly be long before the son for whom this painting is dedicated passed in World War II in the 1940s.

The question of whether Lelia King was an established artist (due to the skill level of this painting) is hard to verify, as I don’t find anything for searches on an artist with either her maiden name or her married name. My next question is: why the horses? And why a title of “Pharaoh Horses?” That opened up some interesting details.

The description of “Pharaoh’s horses” is a reference to Exodus 14:28 in the Bible: “The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen – the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.” I found an analysis that suggests that the image of “Pharaoh’s Horses” can be seen as a symbolic warning against a pursuit without regard for consequences that ends in tragedy. It could also be symbolic of the triumph of the human spirit over oppression, since this Bible story describes how the Israelites were slaves fleeing from Egyptian bondage and Moses parted the Red Sea to allow their escape – and then the waters came crashing down on the pursuing army (and the Pharaoh’s horses).

Another interesting thing that I discovered is that the image of these three horses did not originate with Lelia King – she executed an excellent copy of a painting made by J.F. Herring, first exhibited in 1848. It is suggested that his painting is three different studies of the head of a single horse (rather than 3 separate horses), and a specific horse at that: the grey Arabian stallion, “Imaum,” originally owned by Queen Victoria. She presented Imaum to her Clerk of the Royal Stables, who sold him to Tattersalls, which was the main auctioneer of race horses in the United Kingdom and Ireland. While at Tattersalls, the horse was purchased by Herring, who used the horse as a model for many of his paintings, and kept this horse for the rest of his days. You can see Herring’s original painting here, but it seems that Rosa Bonheur, a French artist (1822 – 1899) made her own version of “Pharaoh’s Horses,” which you can see here. So it’s hard to say whether Lelia King was looking at Herring or Bonheur’s version when she made her painting.

One last note, if you feel like going one step further: the image of “Pharaoh’s Horses” also seems to be a popular image for tattoos … how about that? I never imagined that admiring this painting found on the floor leaned up against the wall would lead me down such a rabbit hole of history and knowledge covering everything from Moses and the Bible to Queen Victoria and tattoos!

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