Horse Painter From the Age of Reason
My idea of “rich” is being able to hop a plane to London or Fort Worth whenever there’s a once-in-a-lifetime art exhibit. Luckily, when The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore featured Britain’s most famous horse painter, George Stubbs (1724-1806), complete with his revolutionary, life-size portrait of the racehorse Whistlejacket, I was an Amtrak ride away.
That the show hit those three cities indicates the long underrated “sporting artist,” best suited for country estates, has risen to museum-worthy “fine artist” of international interest. It’s only taken 200 years.
The self-taught Stubbs started his career as a portraitist and anatomical illustrator in Liverpool and Hull. A born knowledge-addict in an age of theses and theories, and unafraid of challenges and hard work, he embarked on his momentous Anatomy of the Horse. Published in London in 1766, it consists of 18 compelling plates and 50,000 words of dense text describing the horse’s skeleton, muscles, and blood vessels; Stubbs also did the engravings. As it was intended for artists, farriers, anatomists, and “gentlemen who delight in horses,” Stubbs didn’t illustrate the bowels or organs, although his chef-d’oeuvre was an invaluable textbook when Britain established its first veterinary college in 1791.
The bloody, malodorous task of “flaying” horses for 18 months, and illustrating them in the spirit of Bernhard Siegfried Albinus’s astonishing Tables of the Skeleton and Muscles of the Human Body, published in 1747, could be borne by this farrier’s son. The process started by bleeding the beast to death, then filling the veins and arteries with warm tallow to maintain their shape. The carcass was suspended on heavy hooks for up to 11 weeks while Stubbs systematically removed layer upon layer of the very stuff of life.
Mary Spencer assisted him here, and for the rest of his life. Seventeen years his junior and variously referred to as his niece, common-law wife, and presumed mother of his engraver/printer son, she cared for Stubbs’s works and papers after his death.
Stubbs’s horse was the first anatomy of an animal other than the human. And although its empirical approach helped rationalize knowledge and dispel superstitions, such as the color of the horse’s coat determining its nature or “humour,” it was also Stubbs’s manifesto for the horse as a worthy subject of “high” art. Already a member of the Society of Artists, he had a long, troubled relationship with its more elitist, more Tory rival, the Royal Academy of Arts, founded in 1768. Its first president was the artist Joshua Reynolds, who ranked paintings of historic events, mythology, allegorical subjects—even portraits and landscapes—above sporting art.
Stubbs, wrote collector Paul Mellon, saw horses “as symbols of many life forces rather than as mere conveyances, necessities, implements,” at a time when most Brits still held the Tudor view that God created animals solely for their exploitation by mankind. Although Jonathan Swift had opened minds in 1726 with Gulliver’s Travels, where Houyhnhnm-speaking horses are wiser than base human Yahoos, it took another hundred years for Britain’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals act.
Prior to Stubbs, horses in art served mostly in equestrian portraiture of heroes, like the 200 A.D. statue of Marcus Aurelius, which Stubbs surely saw during his one visit to Rome. There he declined to learn art by copying its masterpieces, for the trip confirmed Stubbs’s conviction that direct study of nature was a superior teacher to imitating antiquity.
Stubbs’s unsentimental, empirical approach to his subjects suited the liberal, enterprising spirit of his patrons, mostly aristocratic, fabulously wealthy, landowning Whigs like Lord Rockingham (who served briefly as prime minister and commissioned the gigantic Whistlejacket), who loved to be painted.
After moving to London at age 34, Stubbs began depicting their country life, patrician landscapes, and thoroughbreds—“a creature of mettle and elegance, a pasha of the Levant, a Bedouin of Arabia nourished upon English grass.” This new brand of portraiture conveyed the sport-loving magnate’s pride in the stewardship of his estate; his breeding of cattle, horses, and foxhounds; his menagerie’s kangaroo, cheetah, and moose. Stubbs’s works solemnized the man’s family, friends, and numerous servants, including jockeys, stable boys, gamekeepers, farmworkers, and studgrooms. Practically speaking, his portraits of winning racehorses also served as advertisements for their appearance, pedigree, and stud potential.
Interestingly, Stubbs avoided portraying the rowdy, crowded, sinful world of horse racing, which could drive even the richest men into bankruptcy, as it did King George IV, the naughtiest of King George III and Queen Charlotte’s seven naughty sons, and capricious patron of Stubbs. Instead, Stubbs chose those quieter, less public moments between trusting equine and confident keeper, or between mares and foals. These more static poses allowed him to express the depth of his knowledge of how bones and muscles affect the contours of the horse’s skin and smooth gleam of its coat.
Although he, too, did racing pictures using the conventional “flying gallop” position, with all four of the horse’s legs extended and off the ground simultaneously, he knew it was incorrect. In fact, the exact sequence of a galloping horse’s legwork was revealed only in 1887 with Eadweard Muybridge’s groundbreaking book, Animal Locomotion.
Stubbs denied any Roman influence on his work; yet his rhythmic compositions often consist of groups of two or three people, horses and dogs arranged frieze-like across the front of the canvas. He uses subtle body language, like turning the groom’s body convivially toward his responsive charge or even the viewer, to relate the picture’s elements to each other, as in Lustre, with a Groom. He employs these emotional bonds to animate the composition, and details the expressive demeanor of a laboring class whose names are long forgotten but whose faces we remember, as in Lord Torrington’s Hunt Servants Setting Out. This work, like Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, also uses buildings to anchor and interrelate the picture’s figures and action. In The Duke of Richmond with the Charlton Hunt, the oval-shaped “lasso” of 40 foxhounds in 40 different positions serves to tie together the two planes of this busy work.