Best Equestrian Artists: George Stubbs (1724 – 1806)

Stubbs was born in 1724 in Liverpool and was the son of a currier.

Stubbs was always classed as a ‘sporting painter’ but he was no sportsman himself unlike many of his contemporaries, such as Ben Marshall, who was also a journalist for ‘The Sporting Magazine’ and a devotee of Newmarket. 

Stubbs studied briefly under Hamlet Winstanley who was an assistant of Sir Godfrey Kneller.  He became a provincial portrait painter and also gave private anatomy lessons to students at York Hospital. In 1751 he was commissioned to illustrate a book on midwifery by Dr. John Burton.

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Nature, not Art

At the age of thirty he went to Rome to confirm his belief that nature, not art, was the only source of improvement.  Whilst staying at Ceuta in Morocco, he saw a lion in the moonlight stalking and attacking a white Barbary horses and from this experience he painted a series of pictures.  These pictures combine the terrible and beautiful in a mysterious imaginary landscape which has an aura of disquiet and menace.

Anatomy of the Horse

When Stubbs returned to England in the late 1750s he settled in Lincolnshire to study the anatomy of the horse to provide information for horse breeders.  The Jockey Club had been established in 1750 and there was a huge revival of racing, breeding and training.  Stubbs was a man of great strength and he would carry dead horses into his dissecting chamber where they were hung on hooks and stripped to the bone, layer by layer.  He published ‘The Anatomy of the Horse’ in 1766.

Around this time, Stubbs began to portray living horses for the sporting aristocracy.  He broke away from the conventions of horse painters such as James Wootton (1686 – 1764) and James Seymour (1702 – 1752).  A new naturalism in his pictures brought together landscape, topography, movement and portraiture.  His paintings of horses and foals in parkland showed a rhythm of design in the aesthetic grouping of the horses.  He conveyed the essence of country life in its golden age.

“He could sum up the characteristics of the human beings as well as the animals in his pictures in a way that made the grooms, jockeys and stable boys true archetypes of their race and kind.”

Whistlejacket by George Stubbs in art gallery

However, commissions from the hunting and racing fraternities gradually became less frequent, perhaps due to Stubbs’ reluctance to paint exciting occasions of sporting history. 

John Hunter’s Menagerie

In the 1760s he developed an interest in wild animals. He studied animals in John Hunter’s menagerie and in the menageries of the Tower of London and Windsor Great Park. He was fascinated by lions and tigers and by the abstract patterns of the zebra’s stripes.  He painted animals found by the explorers, Sir Joseph Banks, such as the kangaroo, antelope, moose, rhinoceros, baboon and yak.  He had a scientific curiosity typical of the masters of the Renaissance. 

Experimentation with Media

He also explored the technical qualities and possibilities of media.  He experimented with vitreous colours on pottery plaques supplied by Josiah Wedgewood as an alternative to oil on canvas.  He studied engraving and practised etching, stipple engraving and mezzotint. 

Stubbs was a scientific naturalist, painter, draughtsman and engraver who was guided by geometry, perspective and anatomy – he should not be thought of as just a painter of horses.

“There is every reason to count him, next to Leonardo, as the greatest painter-scientist in the history of art.”

Reference and further reading:

“Stubbs” by William Gaunt

George Stubbs by Robin Blake

The Anatomy of the Horse by George Stubbs

© Michelle Le Grand


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