Stubbs and the Horse
George Stubbs (1724–1806) was a versatile genius whose work includes paintings, prints, and detailed anatomical studies. His many images of horses show a classical beauty, expressiveness, and heroism previously reserved for the human figure. Organized by the Kimbell Art Museum, Stubbs and the Horse was the first major exhibition to focus on this central theme in Stubbs’s work—from refined portraits of racehorses to dramatic scenes of horses attacked by lions in the wild—and celebrated the artist whom many consider to be the greatest painter of horses in the history of art.
The exhibition’s centerpiece was the monumental Whistlejacket, the most widely admired of Stubbs’s works since its acquisition by the National Gallery in London in 1997. This breathtaking work had never before been seen outside Britain.
Commented Timothy Potts, director of the Kimbell Art Museum, “Over the past fifty years, George Stubbs has emerged from behind the rubric of ‘sporting art’ to be appreciated as a painter of major significance in 18th-century European art. This exhibition is the first to focus on the central theme of his work, and highlights the full scope and brilliance of his achievement as a horse painter as never before. From the grand, life-size portraits like the celebrated Whistlejacket, to more intimate portrayals of racehorses with their jockeys and trainers, Stubbs and the Horse provides vivid testimony to why so many have considered Stubbs the greatest horse painter in European art.”
Stubbs and the Horse was organized by the Kimbell Art Museum in association with the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, and the National Gallery, London, and was curated by Malcolm Warner, senior curator at the Kimbell. Principal support for the exhibition was provided by JPMorgan Chase. Additional promotional support was provided by American Airlines, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and NBC5. The exhibition was supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
Many of Stubbs’s works remain in British country-house collections, and several were lent to the exhibition by descendants of the patrons for whom he originally painted them. Other lenders included Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; the Royal Academy of Arts, London; the Tate, London; the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven; the National Gallery, London; the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
The foundation of Stubbs’s career as a painter of horses was his knowledge of equine anatomy. While in his early 30s, he spent approximately 18 months dissecting and drawing the bodies of horses at a remote farmhouse in northern England. Out of his gruesome, messy, and unhealthy labors came the impeccably ordered and beautiful book The Anatomy of the Horse, published in 1766. It contained 18 plates etched by him from his drawings and more than 50,000 words of meticulous scientific text.
Stubbs worked mostly for the horse-loving British nobility and gentry. Although he took advantage of the burgeoning public art exhibitions in his lifetime, showing and selling a number of his works at the annual exhibitions of the Society of Artists and the Royal Academy in London, the mainstay of his patronage was the private commission. He painted portraits of favorite racers, hunters, and stallions, scenes of mares and foals at stud farms, and draft animals, from the fine carriage horse down to the humble carthorse. With the creation and development of the English thoroughbred, the 18th century was the golden age of horse breeding and racing in Britain. Stubbs came on the scene at a moment of high excitement, and profited from the desire of owner-breeders to record and celebrate the equine world that was their pride and joy. They knew horses, and wanted an artist who knew them just as well.
Settling in London at the end of the 1750s, where he lived and worked the rest of his life, Stubbs attracted commissions from some of the wealthiest men in Britain. Among them was Lord Grosvenor, the owner of vast estates in Cheshire and London. From Stubbs he commissioned several idyllic scenes of mares and foals and portraits of his favorite horses, including Lord Grosvenor’s Arabian Stallion, with a Groom. It was from imported Middle Eastern and North African stallions like Grosvenor’s that British breeders had created the thoroughbred.
Another of Stubbs’s key patrons was Viscount Bolingbroke, of Lydiard Tregoze in Wiltshire. Nicknamed “Bully,” Bolingbroke was a famous figure in the world of breeding and racing, both as an owner-breeder and as a reckless gambler, and owned some of the most successful horses of the age, including the illustrious Gimcrack. Bolingbroke had Gimcrack for only six months, but during that time commissioned a masterpiece of turf portraiture, Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a Trainer, a Stable-Lad, and a Jockey. Using one of his favorite long, horizontal canvases, Stubbs adopted the archaic device of conflating two scenes in the same image: Gimcrack winning a race in the right background and a stable-lad rubbing him down, attended by his trainer and jockey, in the left foreground. The curious absence of spectators in the background scene is typical of the artist—he shows none of the crowds and rough-and-tumble of the races, only the private world of the racehorse and his attendants.
The most adventurous of Stubbs’s patrons, the Marquess of Rockingham, was also the most eminent. Rockingham was an important politician, leading the Whig party and supporting independence for the American colonies. For brief periods in 1765–66 and 1782 he was prime minister. He was an enthusiastic owner-breeder of horses, and maintained a large stud farm at his country house, the grand Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire. It was Rockingham who commissioned the first of Stubbs’s remarkable paintings of horses against plain backgrounds, of which Whistlejacket is the most famous. Whistlejacket was a grandson of the Godolphin Arabian, one of the “foundation sires” of the thoroughbred. Rockingham raced him for three years and retired him to stud in 1759. At first he employed Stubbs to paint this exceptionally handsome horse in a mere supporting role, as part of a portrait of George III on horseback. The figure of the king and the setting were to be added by other painters—portrait and landscape specialists. When Rockingham saw what Stubbs had done, however, he abandoned the plan and had Stubbs complete the work as a portrait of Whistlejacket with neither rider nor setting. The result was more powerful as a work of art than a collaborative equestrian portrait of the king could possibly have been. It was also a landmark in the history of mankind’s relationship to animals. With its focus on the horse rather than the rider, it gave expression to the growing respect in 18th-century Britain for the animal as an individual, independent being.
Rockingham also has the distinction of having commissioned the first of Stubbs’s paintings of horses attacked by lions—atavistic images suggesting the origins of the noble thoroughbred in the wild. In the many variations on the horse-and-lion theme that he painted from this point on, Stubbs sought to raise the painting of animals above portraiture and genre to the higher artistic category of history painting. Essays in the awe-inspiring or “sublime,” the works suggest a primeval state in which horses were prey to barbaric violence, long before being embraced into human civilization. In particular they relate to the prehistory of the English thoroughbred in North Africa and the Middle East. The horse owners, breeders, and admirers who were Stubbs’s main patrons were deeply concerned with matters of pedigree, and were fascinated by the exotic origins of the thoroughbred. In the horse-and-lion compositions, Stubbs offered them imaginary scenes from the lives and deaths of their own horses’ ancestors.
In his compositions of mares and foals, mostly commissioned or bought from him by noblemen who bred horses, Stubbs paid tribute to the peaceable realm of the stud farm and the extraordinary achievement of British breeders in creating the thoroughbred racehorse. Through the groupings and body language of the horses, Stubbs took the opportunity to suggest interactions and relationships, the workings of equine family and community life. In perhaps the most spectacular example, Brood Mares and Foals, the rocky outcrops in the background are recognizable as Creswell Crags, a range of limestone cliffs in Derbyshire. Stubbs associated the crags with the idea of the wild, using them for his scenes of horses attacked by lions and for some of his portraits of Arabians, in which they suggest the origins of the Arabian in supposedly uncivilized lands. He may have meant to give a similar hint of the primeval to Brood Mares and Foals—the noble thoroughbred has emerged, through breeding, from raw and savage nature. In Stubbs and the Horse this work made its first public appearance since 1768.
Toward the end of his career, Stubbs enjoyed a spate of patronage from the Prince of Wales (the future George IV), whom he probably met through his friend and fellow painter Richard Cosway. Between 1790 and 1793, the prince commissioned no fewer than 14 paintings, all in oil on canvas and about the same size. Together they formed a series celebrating various pleasures of the outdoors—riding, driving, racing, the park, dogs, and the military.
The Prince of Wales series shows to the full Stubbs’s flair for composition and staging, as, for instance, in The Prince of Wales’s Phaeton, with the Coachman Samuel Thomas and a Tiger-Boy. A phaeton was a carriage built for speed, and the prince’s was an especially fast “highflyer.” In the painting, the prince’s servants are getting the vehicle and a beautifully matched pair of horses ready for a drive. The choice of this moment of preparation underlines the importance that drivers at this glamorous level attached to maintaining a fine appearance—much of the pleasure and prestige of the sport lay in an impeccable turnout.
Stubbs and the Horse was the first exhibition to focus on the artist’s remarkable engagement with the horse as a theme and to look at his work in relation to the significance of horses in 18th-century England. The status and associations of “the noble horse” and the colorful world of its devotees, high and low, are not only fascinating topics in themselves, they are a setting in which the genius of this long-underrated artist emerges more vividly than ever.
Following its presentation at the Kimbell, the exhibition was on view at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (March 13–May 29, 2005) and the National Gallery, London (June 29–September 25, 2005). Admission prices were $8 for adults, $6 for seniors age 60 and over and students with I.D., and $4 for children between 6 and 11. Children under 6 were free, as were museum members. An Acoustiguide audio tour was available for $4 ($3 for museum members). Admission prices were half-off on Tuesdays (not applicable to the Acoustiguide audio tour).