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Famous Horse Artists
First Posted Feb 8, 2007
Sep 7, 2010

George Stubbs

George Stubbs 1724-1806

George Stubbs is an artist who, in his time, was known only to a narrow circle of aristocratic sportsmen and horse lovers. Painters of his time considered him to simply be a horse-painter. In the 20th century the glory of Stubbs's paintings, and the full extent of his achievement were revealed. His charting of the equine skeletal and muscular system was quite extensive. Stubbs's horse paintings were portraits of his knowledge of physiology as well as his genius in art. The majority of his works remain in private collections. Many of them are still in the families for which they were originally painted. Recently, there was a showing of a compilation of his paintings at the Walters Museum, in Baltimore, Maryland. My husband and I were lucky enough to see it. George Stubbs's glory and expertise is now appreciated. He is gaining the mass recognition that he clearly deserves, and has taken his place as a master painter.

George Stubbs was born in 1724 in Liverpool, son of a currier and one of five children. He had a minimum of formal instruction: in 1739 he was briefly a pupil of the minor painter Hamlet Winstanley. This was apparently enough to launch Stubbs off as a provincial portrait painter. As such he worked (1743-53) in Wigan, Leeds, York and at Hull. When at York he already knew enough anatomy to give private lessons to medical students at York Hospital and this led to his commissions in 1751 to illustrate a book on midwifery by Dr. John Burton. He learned enough of etching from a local engraver to etch the plates himself.

His interest in anatomy and his study of it continued all his life. It proved to be important not only to his art but also as a major contribution to science. In 1766 his, "The Anatomy of the Horse," was published, which added to his prestige. He worked on a comparative anatomy of a man, a tiger, and common fowl until his death. Unfortunately it was never completed.

At the age of 30, in 1754 he went to Italy by boat. He is said to have gone with no enthusiasm for Italian art, but with a desire to confirm his view that nature, not art, was the only source of inspiration and improvement. On the return journey he made a stop in Morocco. It is believed that a scene he saw there inspired his later picture, "Horse Attacked by a Lion" (1762-1765). In 1756, his son, George Townley Stubbs, was born. Mary Spencer was his common-law wife and mother to his son. In 1759, the family moved to London.

In the 1760s-1770s, Stubbs lived in London. The nature of his commissions required him to extensively travel. A series of masterpieces, mostly belonging to this decade, were depictions of horses and foals. Some of the horses named and were painted for their owners. Others were variations on the theme "Mares and Foals in a Wooded Landscape" (1760-1762), "Racehorses Belonging to the Duke of Richmond Exercising at Goodwood" (1760-1761), "Mares and Foals Disturbed by an Approaching Storm" (1764-1766). As portraits his horses were satisfying to his patrons.

"Whistlejacket" (1761-1762) is my favorite. "Whistlejacket" was painted on a scale that was usually fit for a king. This painting fascinated contemporaries who hypothesized that it was really an unfinished equestrian portrait of George III. A landscape painter was supposed to have filled in the background and a portrait artist was going to do the king. Then political differences between the Marquess of Rockingham and the monarch meant that the picture was left unfinished. There's no proof of this story. The way Stubbs has painted the shadows under Whistlejacket's back feet suggests, on the contrary, that this painting looks the way he wanted it to. It is a romantic study in solitude and liberty, freeing "Whistlejacket" from the bridles and whips that surrounded him in life, to gallop in unlimited abstract space.

Stubbs expanded his paintings from portraitures of mounted sportsmen to hunting and racing. From the end of the 1760s he produced magnificent examples of the genre "The Melbourne and Milbanke Families" (1769-1770), John and Sophia "Musters Out Riding at Colwick Hall" (1777).


A separate development, beginning in the 1760s, was Stubbs's portrayal of wild animals. He painted horse and lion pictures, "Horse Attacked by a Lion" (1768-1772). He was commissioned to paint the first kangaroo brought to England. He was also commissioned to paint a moose "The Moose" (1770). There were commissions for an Indian rhinoceros, a baboon with a macaque monkey, a yak, and other animals. An exceptional commission was that commemorating the gift of a cheetah to George III by the Governor of Madras, Sir George Pigot (later Lord Pigot). The painted was named "Cheetah with Two Indian Attendants and a Stag" (1764-1765).

In the 1770s, Stubbs embarked on new enterprises. He experimented with enamel painting. He consulted Josiah Wedgwood about the possibility of making large pottery plaques on which the enamel process could be used. Josiah Wedgwood invited Stubbs to stay at his Etruria headquarters and experiment. Stubbs lived with the famous potter in 1780, using the process on pottery plaques in portraits of Wedgwood and his family, creating experimental paintings on ceramics. In the great paintings that were still to come, he reverted to oils, mostly on smooth panels rather than canvas.

An Associate of the Royal Academy in 1780, Stubbs was elected to full membership in 1781. The self-portrait of that year, executed in enamel on an oval "Wedgwood plaque Self-Portrait" (1781), shows him at fifty-seven. The Academy did not look kindly on experiments. Most of its members held to the conviction that painting in oils was the proper exercise of professional skill. Even watercolor was grudgingly admitted to its exhibitions. A great development of this decade was Stubbs's rendering of rural life and work. Two oil paintings on panel, "The Reapers" (1784) and "The Haymakers" (1785) are examples.

In 1790s the Prince of Wales commissioned a painting of members of his favored regiment, "Soldiers of the 10th Light Dragoons." (1793) Other works of royal commission included the portrait presumed to be of "Laetitia, Lady Lade" (1793). It is of interest to know that Lady Lade was an accomplished horsewoman. Her reputation was that of a scandalous woman who commonly used notoriously bad language. She and her husband, the Baronet, Sir John Lade, were good friends with the Prince. The Prince purchased horses from them. Society's disapproval of Lady Lade did not deter the Prince from adding this portrait of her, in a blue riding-habit and on a horse, to his collection. The Prince's commissions was further extended by the herd of red deer he had acquired, "Red Deer Stag and Hind" (1792). In all, the 18 paintings by Stubbs, still preserved at Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace, show his powers undiminished. As he neared the age of 70, his paintings were as strong as ever.Wooded Landscape" (1760-l762)

Stubbs died July 10, 1806. He was in poor financial circumstances.

More Paintings by George Stubbs:

"A Saddled Bay Hunter" (1768)

"Huntsmen Setting Out from Southill, Bedfordshire" (1763-1768)

"Mares and Foals by an Oak Tree" (1764)

"Mares and Foals Disturbed by an Approaching Storm" (1764-1766)

"The Grosvenor Hunt" (1762)

"Racehorses Belonging to the Duke of Richmond Exercising at Goodwood" (1760-1761)

"Baronet with Samuel Chifney" (1791)

There are many more paintings by George Stubbs, each one as wonderful as the next. Take a moment to research and enjoy them.

Famous Horse Artists