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Whistlejacket and Eclipse: the horses that posed for George Stubbs

The human fascination for the horse is at least as old as the art of painting itself. Proof of this are the prehistoric cave paintings of wild horses. That has remained so until the present day. The horse is a recurring artistic theme in various forms: in mythological figures such as the Centaur, Pegasus and the Unicorn, but the horse is also present in paintings by Velázquez, Rubens and George Stubbs. This is partly due to the role of the horse throughout the ages; as a means of transport, as agricultural resource, in sport and hunting, but also in warfare. But what did the horse mean to George Stubbs? And what makes his paintings so special?

George Stubbs, Portrait of Joseph Smyth Esquire, Lieutenant of Whittlebury Forest, c.1762-1764, Cambridge, The Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge

From elite portraitist to horse painter

Although anatomy was Stubbs' passion, in the 18th century he first made a name for himself as portrait painter of the elite, since that was one way to actually make money. He was popular and his commissions eventually provided him with the financial freedom to specialise in anatomy. He settled in York, where he took up anatomy lessons. This is most likely where he decided to dive into the horse anatomy. It was the only animal that had already been the subject of an anatomical study, but this study no longer met the scientific standard. Stubbs saw a challenge and an opportunity to position himself as an expert on the topic. He spent months dissecting horses and making anatomical drawings. In order to distribute his work, prints of it had to be made. However, Stubbs' etching technique left something to be desired, so he moved to London where he hoped to collaborate with prominent

engravers. London is also where he received his first assignments as a horse painter. Horse paintings were particularly popular at the time. That was related to the popularity of equestrian sports. Noble families often owned horses, a status symbol in the 18th century, and were thus keen to see their horse immortalised. The lifelike portraits of living horses are characteristic of Stubbs' work; they were immediately recognisable to the owners.

George Stubbs' masterpiece Whistlejacket

The highlight of this exhibition is Stubb's masterpiece Whistlejacket. That is no coincidence. Whistlejacket is a life-size portrait. The story goes that Stubbs made this painting in a stable while Whistlejacket posed for him. When it was finished, Stubbs stood it against a wall to view it from a distance. Whistlejacket also saw the picture and recognised it as a real horse. He even got ready to attack. For his owner, that was the ultimate proof that the painting was perfect as it was. The background remained empty, giving it a timeless appearance.

Eclipse portrayed by George Stubbs

Whereas Whistlejacket owes its fame mainly to Stubbs' talent as a painter, the legendary reputation of Eclipse the racehorse is entirely due to his own qualities. Eclipse was the most famous and successful racehorse of the eighteenth century. Nobody dared to race against Eclipse any more, and so he eventually became a breeding stallion. And a successful one at that: he bred 930 offspring over the course of 17 years, including 300 prize-winning racehorses. Not only is the portrait that Stubbs made of Eclipse presented at the exhibition, Eclipse himself has also crossed the channel to the Netherlands. At least what is left of him: his skeleton.

Read more about George Stubbs, the man behind the horse paintings, or about his obsession.

 

George Stubbs, Whistlejacket, c.1762, London, The National Gallery

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