George Stubbs: the man behind the horse paintings 'Whistlejacket' and 'Eclipse'
George Stubbs, the horse painter - in Great Britain, he is a phenomenon. He's one of the most important eighteenth-century artists and part of the collective memory. He undoubtedly has a universally well-known name, along with people like William Turner, Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. But in the Netherlands, he is still relatively unknown. That is about to change thanks to our new exhibition, George Stubbs - The man, the horse, the obsession. His beautiful horse portraits, including the 'Whistlejacket' masterpiece, are currently presented at the Mauritshuis. But who was George Stubbs, and where did his fascination for horses and anatomy come from?
The work of George Stubbs has interesting common ground with works from our 17th-century collection, such as The Young Bull by Potter and Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp. In addition, eighteenth-century Dutch paintings are a lesser-known but important part of the permanent collection of the Mauritshuis.
Ozias Humphry, Portrait Study of George Stubbs, 1777, Trustees of the Rt Hon. Olive, Countess Fitzwilliam’s Chattels Settlement, by Permission of Lady Juliet Tadgell
George Stubbs' young yearsGeorge Stubbs (1724-1806) was born in Liverpool and worked as a child in his father's leather business. Stubbs proved to have a talent for drawing from a young age. A neighbour gave him animal bones, which he then drew at home. His interest in the combination of anatomy and art was thus awakened early on. Stubbs' father hoped that his son would succeed him in the family business, but George's dream was to become an artist. He put that dream into practice and seems to have managed to successfully develop, as an autodidact, into a portrait painter of the local elite. Thanks to his success as a portrait painter, George Stubbs was able to financially afford to also devote himself, almost obsessively, to his great passion: painting horses from an anatomical, almost scientific basis. He was convinced that the study of nature was necessary in order to be able to make true art. That belief makes him fit in perfectly with an important contemporary current: the Enlightenment.
The education of horse painter George Stubbs
At the age of twenty, Stubbs took up anatomical studies at a hospital in York. He received anatomy lessons and also learned to use the scalpel. It was then customary to use the bodies of criminals sentenced to death for anatomical research. He diligently recorded everything he saw and learned and drew a lot. It must have been at the York hospital that he had the idea of focusing on the anatomy of the horse. Stubbs established his reputation as a portraitist and continued to paint horses for the rest of his long life - living to be 81 years old. With his anatomical studies of the horse at the service of the arts, he developed into a true 'artist-scientist'. Yet Stubbs also longed for the recognition that came with the 'higher' genres, in particular historical painting. His specialisation turned out ideal: more than any other animal, the horse summons up a direct association with stories from classical antiquity. And thus, Stubbs received the recognition he was longing for.
George Stubbs, Finished study for ‘The Eighth Anatomical Table of the Muscles of the Horse: surface muscles dissected to reveal parts of the underlying skeleton; ribs, sternum and jugular veins at base of neck now evident’, c. 1756 - 1758, London, Royal Academy of Arts