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George Stubbs' obsession: the anatomy of a horse

George Stubbs followed anatomical studies at a hospital in York. These anatomical lessons focused primarily on the human body, so one might wonder how Stubbs eventually came up with the idea of diving into the anatomy of horses. However, this is less surprising than one might think. How did Stubbs work? How did he achieve his lifelike horse portraits? And where does a passion end and does the obsession begin?

George Stubbs, Finished study for ‘The First Anatomical Table of the Skeleton of the Horse: lateral view’, c.1756-1758, London, Royal Academy of Arts

Stubbs' choice for the anatomy of horses

It was most likely in York that Stubbs came up with the idea of focusing on studying the equine anatomy. Besides humans, the horse was the only other animal to which anatomical publications had previously been exclusively devoted. However, the most important study to date, 'Dell'Anatomia et dell'informita del Cavallo', from 1598, no longer met the 18th century scientific standards. George Stubbs, who did not shy away from a big challenge, saw this as a unique opportunity to become an expert. He was convinced that in order to be able to represent something faithfully, one must know what constitutes it, and so he decided to dissect horses himself.

Stubbs' method: fascinating and quite remarkable

We can infer how Stubbs worked from his memoirs. For example, we know that the (usually old) horses were killed especially for dissections. That would have been the only possible way at the time, since it was impossible in the 18th century to store and transport horses that died of natural causes in refrigerated conditions. For his dissections, Stubbs would retire to a farm with a large barn in Horkstow. After the horses had bled to death, a wax-like fluid was injected into the arteries and nerves in order to preserve their natural shape. The horse was then hung with hooks from a metal bar that was attached to the ceiling of his workshop. The hooves rested on a horizontal board, giving the horse body a standing posture. Stubbs worked an average of six to seven weeks on one carcass. He took the horse apart layer by layer. This allowed him to gain insight into the different muscle layers. After that many weeks, the stench must have been unbearable, but nothing kept Stubbs from studying. The beautiful anatomical drawings that have been preserved provide an impressive picture of Stubbs' dedication and accuracy. It is difficult to imagine that they were created under such spartan conditions. He did not seem to care about the stench and he led a simple lifestyle: going to bed early, eating and drinking moderately, enjoying the peace and nature and dissecting horses with full attention.

The Anatomy of the Horse

In 1766, 10 years after the start of the project, Stubbs published the book The Anatomy of the Horse - all done from Nature. A groundbreaking publication of more than 50,000 words and 18 detailed illustrations for which the artist received a great deal of international recognition: it became the work of reference in the field of equine anatomy. Artists, anatomists, veterinarians and horse lovers all gratefully made use of it. It was a beautiful publication in which anatomical science and artistry spectacularly came together. The exhibition George Stubbs - The man, the horse, the obsession features not only 13 paintings, but also 10 anatomical drawings by Stubbs and 2 copies from the book The Anatomy of the Horse.

Read more about the man behind the horse paintings or about the horses he painted


George Stubbs, Finished study for ‘The Third Anatomical Table of the Skeleton of the Horse: posterior view’, c.1756-1758, London, Royal Academy of Arts


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