George Stubbs - Whistlejacket

by Stefanie Meier-Kaftan


As a subject, the horse has a long tradition in representations and is also interpreted differently in mythology and history. It stands for strength, vitality, for victory, but also for arrogance and lust and is considered an attribute of Europe.(1) This extraordinary quadruped is a constant companion of man. Beginning with the first cave paintings around 15000 B.C. to the abstract representations of a Pablo Picasso or the soulful portraits of a Franz Marc in the 20th century, the horse representation reaches. And among all these thematizations of the horse within their respective oeuvres, the English painter George Stubbs stands out in particular. His representational approach to this creature is unique - for he regarded it with equal affection, both anatomically and artistically.

Along with Benjamin Marshall, George Stubbs is one of the most famous English animal painters of the 18th century. Stubbs' drawings of horses and dogs enjoyed great popularity among the nobility as well as the wealthy bourgeoisie. Starting from the tradition of the Dutch, Stubbs led the animal genre to a high degree of independence in England, earlier than on the continent.(2) In England, horse depictions usually show half-breeds and thoroughbreds bred for speed and long stride. The English thoroughbred was bred for speed as early as the 17th century and has since been considered the most famous and elegant of all horse breeds. There was an appreciation of the horse in England especially from the 17th century. It attained a popularity status like hardly any other animal. This probably had to do with its usefulness for hunting and racing, which was especially popular in England.


George Stubbs was born on August 24, 1724 in Liverpool, England. His father was a successful leather fitter. He probably ran a saddlery and also undertook necessary tanning work for it. His father bowed to Stubbs' artistic will and allowed him to take drawing lessons at the age of fifteen for a shilling a day from the Warrington portrait painter Hamlet Winstanley (1968-1756). George Stubbs died in London shortly before his 82nd birthday on July 10, 1806.


Stubbs' work is characterized on the one hand by his anatomically detailed depictions of horses and on the other hand by his versatility. In addition to depictions of horses and riders, he also drew hunting scenes, dogs, exotic animals and portraits. In terms of materiality, his oeuvre ranges from oil paintings on canvas to enamel works on copper and later on porcelain plates to printmaking. Stubbs' oeuvre often features the combination of man and horse, or rather horse and man, (3) for horses are almost always at the center of his interest in his paintings and were accordingly depicted at a high artistic level.


Despite some notoriety that he experienced during his lifetime, George Stubbs did not fully earn the designation as one of the greatest and most famous British artists until 1997, when the National Gallery in London acquired his life-size portrait of the famous horse Whistlejacket and made it available to the general public. Whistlejacket originally served as a model for a planned equestrian portrait of George III. One of his first and most important patrons, the Marquess of Rockingsham commissioned Stubbs around 1762 to create this painting as a counterpart to a horse portrait he had already acquired. What was originally intended as an equestrian portrait to express the power and authority of the sovereign ultimately resulted in Whistlejacket being the sole focus of the life-size painting.


We see the horse in the center of the painting in a reared posture, both front legs thereby in the air. His tail and mane seem to be slightly in motion due to the posture. The horse stands there completely without rider, saddle and bridle and also without any landscape in the background. It embodies as a symbol of the animal as an independent living being. Its golden yellow coat and its light tail and mane coloring are typical of the Palomino coat color and stand out very well against the golden gray background. The incidence of light is difficult to make out, as the horse itself only shows a very short shadow on the hind legs as well as in the neck area. Stubb's detailed and naturalistic painting style can be seen very well in the fact that, for example, muscle parts and especially the horse's head area are depicted anatomically correct down to the smallest detail. The attention to detail extends so far that it is clearly visible that the hooves are shod with horseshoes. The wide open eyes and nostrils suggest that the horse's temperament is wild and impetuous. This again underlines the individual character of this depiction of a horse.


1 Cf. Zuffi, Stefano [ed.]: Nature and its Symbols. Plants, animals and mythical creatures. Bildlexikon der Kunst vol. 7. Berlin 2005. p. 257.

2 Cf. Olbrich, Harald [ed.] u. w.: Lexikon der Kunst. Vol. 5, Leipzig 2004. p. 553.

3 Cf. Mayoux, Jean-Jacques [ed.]. S. 95.


George Stubbs - Whistlejacket

Oil on canvas, 1762, 292 x 246.4 cm, National Gallery in London.

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