Once a week we take a painting, or piece of sculpture, that interests us, tell you a bit about it and hope it sparks something with you and your families. We would love to hear your recommendations.
Over the next month, we have decided as a team to pick some of the pieces of art that we are most excited about seeing again when museums and galleries reopen their doors on 17th May. This famous portrait by George Stubbs (1724 – 1806) of a horse called Whistlejacket is the picture Julia is longing to see again when the National Gallery opens again.
Whistlejacket by George Stubbs
1762, National Gallery, London
A monumental piece of art – its sheer size will stop you in your tracks as you enter Room 34 and universally admired for its life-like portrayal of a specific horse with unique character. Notice the veins on his legs and the muscles flexing under his skin. From afar it is easy to comment on the rigorous realism and yet get closer and look at his flank and there is actually very loose brushwork (almost abstract if you were to blow up one of those sections). And interestingly, the edges of this horse look sharp from afar – but closer they’re a little blurred – like the he is moving. Noteworthy too is that there are none of the trappings of the race horse: no saddle, no bridle – this horse is wild and free.
There a few records and so a memoir Stubbs dictated towards the end of his life (not always reliably) to Ozias Humphry – a friend and artist – is the only clue we have to Stubb’s motivations. He was born in 1724 in Liverpool to a currier (leather-dresser). His father's was a skilled but tough profession and Stubbs decided he didn’t want to follow in his footsteps. Aged 8 he started drawing prodigiously and was made interested in anatomy by a local doctor. In 1744 he moved to York to work as a portrait painter and studied human anatomy under a surgeon at York County Hospital. One of Stubb's earliest works is a set of Illustrations to a book on midwifery.
In 1754 he went to Rome which, as far as the British were concerned in the eighteenth century, was the centre of European art world. Stubbs returned to England convinced that the study of classical sculpture was not the way forward for art and that the thing to do was to study nature. At the time, this was a radical view. Back from Rome he restarted his career. Up until this point he was largely self-taught and one of the core elements of teaching art in eighteenth century was studying the human form.
How do you paint a horse that doesn’t stand still? Stubbs used his experience of anatomy. Moving to Horkstow in Lincolnshire, he spent 18 months dissecting dead horses in his barn. A hugely laborious and difficult task which enabled him to produce incredibly beautiful and detailed pictures of the anatomies of horses. He arrived in London in 1758 determined to engrave these horses for a book. His book – The Anatomy of Horses – was self-produced in 1766. Notably, the detailed engravings did not include the internal organs of horse and this was because internal organs are not interesting for an artist. This was a book for other artists to understand the anatomy of a horse (not one aimed at vets, for example).
Rich men must have seen his drawings because he started to get commissions in London. One such wealthy patron was the Marquis of Rockingham. Rockingham lived in one of the largest houses in Europe, Wentworth Woodhouse and as leader of the Whigs became Prime Minister twice. Passionate about racing (he had stables for 200 horses) he Invited Stubbs to come and paint his horses.
At the time, the plain backdrop to this painting was considered unfinished. There is a story that this painting was waiting for a background and a rider – namely the King (George III) – but modern art historians don’t believe it’s unfinished. This – they think – is exactly what Stubbs set out to do.
We can appreciate the beauty and mobility that give Whistlejacket his character – a specific horse with intimate attention to detail and form. Stubbs painted other animals too (zebras, a kangaroo, dogs and so forth) and was always interested in animals in their entirety and in Whistlejacket he has certainly captured that.
Visit Whistlejacket in Room 34 of The National Gallery from 17 May. Entry free.
Anya Waddington 25th April 2021