Stubbs’ masterpiece, Whistlejacket, goes beyond the limits of conventional animal painting and is one of the most heroic and daring images in the history of British art. Although he catered to a clientele who were interested in horse-racing and hunting, Stubbs was a sophisticated man of his time who had visited Rome where he saw classical sculpture and was also friendly with scientists and the early industrialists, whose inventions he incorporated into his distinctly English form of Neo-classicism.
Born in Liverpool, Stubbs began his career as a portrait painter there before finding employment as the illustrator for an early guide to midwifery. In 1754, Stubbs travelled to Rome where he would have seen the famous classical sculpture Lion attacking a Horse, a subject which he would adapt, just as the sculptor Antonio Susini (1558–1624) had, many times during his career. Excited by the idea of combining art and science, Stubbs moved to a remote house in Lincolnshire where he embarked on an ambitious project to record the dissection of a horse. The process took over a year and resulted in his Anatomy of The Horse, a series of exquisitely drawn engravings of the musculature and skeleton of a horse. The success of the publication of the Anatomy led to important commissions from Whig grandees such as the Duke of Richmond, the Earl of Grosvenor and Lord Rockingham. Notable among these is The Grosvenor Hunt painted in 1762, based on similar scenes by the French animalier, Oudry (1686–1755), this painting was composed with all the deliberation you would expect from a history painter. The following years would see Stubbs producing a succession of masterpieces notably Whistlejacket, the Lion Attacking a Horse and the Mares and Foals series. Both the latter and Whistlejacket are unusual for being painted with a neutral background, intended to highlight the composition and to lend it a sculptural presence.
Propelled by these successes, Stubbs was in great demand as a realistic painter of horses and the production of equine portraits of varying degrees of quality absorbed him for the rest of his career. One of his single most moving works is the late Hambletonian, a close-up portrait of an exhausted racehorse who has just given his all, held by his groom and trainer. As early as 1768, Stubbs took an interest in the semi-industrial production of paintings in enamel or on clay tablets. The latter were produced at the Wedgwood factory in Staffordshire and the aim was to produce paintings whose color would never fade. Stubbs used these clay tablets to produce bucolic images of country life such as The Reapers painted in 1795. He also applied these industrial processes to the production of other subject paintings such as the Fall of Phaeton and Lion attacking a Stag. Stubbs’ career is paralleled by that of Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–97), another painter from the provinces, who took an interest in current scientific advances.
The series of the horse in mortal combat with a lion or the Horse frightened by a storm were Stubbs’ interpretation of ideas about the wildness of Nature and the Sublime which were current in the late eighteenth century. Stubbs treated these subjects in numerous paintings as well as the highly refined prints which he engraved himself. In addition to horses, Stubbs painted numerous other animals such as the Zebra, the Moose, the Kangaroo and various dogs. His subject-matter, however, held him back in receiving official recognition at the Royal Academy to which he was only admitted in 1780. Stubbs was also an exceptionally fine portraitist who was a sympathetic observer of people lower on the social ladder: jockeys, grooms and gamekeepers.
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Books on George Stubbs
Judy Egerton, George Stubbs, Painter: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, 2007.
Malcolm Warner and Robin Blake, eds. Stubbs and the Horse, exh. cat. New Haven and Fort Worth, 2004.
Nicholas Hall, ed., Fearful Symmetry, George Stubbs, Painter of the English Enlightenment, exh. cat. New York, 2000.
Basil Taylor, Stubbs, London, 1971.
Frederick Boyle and Joseph Mayer, Memoirs of Thomas Dodd, William Upcott, and George Stubbs, R.A., Liverpool, 1879.