Whistlejacket

I learned about George Stubbs several months ago when I was looking for an image of a horse to illustrate a blog post. I came across the stunning painting of Whistlejacket, which hangs in the National Gallery in London.

Englishman George Stubbs did not arrive at his impressive talent easily. He taught himself to paint and developed a mastery of portraying horses by meticulously dissecting and drawing the anatomy of a dozen of them over 18 months in the mid 18th century. He particularly focused on their bones, muscles, and subcutaneous veins to arrive at “authentic, elegant and transcendental paintings.*” Michelangelo had achieved equal mastery of the human form by similar means 200 years earlier; but Stubbs went even further. Finding no suitable engraver, he taught himself to etch “to the necessary standard” and made the plates for his book, The Anatomy of the Horse.

The Anatomy of the Horse

Although the book was a marvel of detailed equine anatomy rarely found in human anatomical works of the time, Stubbs saw himself as an artist rather than as an anatomist. He identified himself on the title page as George Stubbs, Painter. In the introduction he hoped that the book “might prove particularly useful to those of my own profession” and took care to portray his specimens in lifelike positions.

Stubbs developed an aristocratic patronage and lived well in London on commissions received from painting both humans and racehorses.

He also started a second book, Comparative Anatomical Exposition of the Structure of the Human Body, with That of a Tiger and a Common Fowl. Unusual for the time, the drawings of these animals, which were externally quite different, demonstrated marked, shared skeletal similarities.

Comparative Anatomical Exposition of the Structure of the Human Body, with That of a Tiger and a Common Fowl

Stubbs became friends with brothers William and John Hunter, both eminent doctors. The three of them shared their deep interests in anatomy and the natural world. The Hunters greatly valued Stubbs’ artistic expertise because, as Britain’s colonial expansion brought home growing knowledge of the natural world, visual records were vital for identifying species and distinguishing differences between them. For instance, Stubbs had opportunities to visit aristocrats’ country estates, which often had menageries. On one visit he accurately painted a moose, rarely seen in Britain at the time. William Hunter was then able to compare the moose to the fossilized skeleton of an Irish elk, which was actually a deer with gigantic antlers. At the time, some considered the moose and the Irish elk to be the same species, but Stubb’s painting showed that the moose’s recently shed antlers were distinctly different from the fossilized Irish elk antlers. This evidence helped William Hunter show that the two animals were distinct species and that the elk was extinct, a then controversial concept.

Through his paintings of other privately kept wild animals, Stubbs introduced 18th century Britons to kangaroos, lions, tigers, rhinos, and giraffes.

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Even with horses and dogs, each animal’s spirit seems to jump off the canvas and into viewers’ hearts. George Stubbs made the point that, despite first-glance appearances, we have much in common with animals larger, smaller, and more furry and feathery than ourselves.

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* Spira A, Postle M, Bonaventura P (editors): George Stubbs, All Done from Nature. London, Holberton Publishing, 2019.

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