George Stubbs: portrait of the horse Whistlejacket | National Gallery
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George Stubbs: portrait of the horse Whistlejacket | National Gallery

August 14, 2019


Hello ladies and gentlemen.
Welcome to The National Gallery. My name is Matthew Morgan.
I work here in the Education Department. And, for the next half an hour, we’re going to be looking at and thinking
about this remarkable painting by the English artist George Stubbs. This is a portrait. This is a portrait of a specific horse –
a horse called Whistlejacket. And one of the things that I think
is very remarkable about this painting, is it has a very universal appeal. I was talking about this painting, and showing it to a group of people
from New Zealand recently, who were over in the UK
to go and see horse racing. They were horse racing enthusiasts. And they were remarking
how life-like it is. They specifically liked the veins
on Whistlejacket’s legs. I also talked to one of my colleagues
about this painting, and she told me a story about her mother,
who loved this painting, even though she never rode a horse
and had no exposure to horses in her life. So there is something about it, something that speaks to people regardless
of whether you are a horsey person or not. One of the things that I think
speaks about ‘Whistlejacket’ is that he has character. He is not an idealised horse,
he is not a stock figure. This is a specific horse. And if you look closely at his face, I hope you will agree with me that
you can see there is something individual going on with him. He is not just any horse. He is a real horse or was a real horse. One of the other things I like
particularly about ‘Whistlejacket’ here is the way that he is painted. From afar, he looks like he is painted
with really rigorous realism. However, do get a little bit closer,
particularly really up close, and have a look at his flank. And once you get really close, you can see that Stubbs
has used some very loose brush work. And if you just had a blow-up
of one of those sections, it might look almost abstract. The other thing I like
about how it’s painted, is Whistlejacket’s edges. Again, from afar,
it looks like he’s got very sharp edges, but as you get close,
the edges are almost blurred, and you get that feeling that
he’s moving rather like us when we move. So… The other, I think,
very remarkable element of this painting is what isn’t there. Here is Whistlejacket.
He is placed in an empty, infinite space. He’s not overcome with any
of the trappings of him being a racehorse, except perhaps for his horseshoes. He has no saddle, he has no bridle. He has nothing about him that
makes us think that he could be ridden or, indeed, is being ridden. He is wild and free,
unfettered, noble, beautiful. So… …why has Stubbs
chosen to paint him like this? These are questions that
are always difficult to answer. The motivations of artists, particularly the further away
from the contemporary day you go, are practically impossible to ascertain. And the case of Stubbs is
probably worse than lots of other artists. He kept no diary. We have very little
in the way of correspondence by him. He doesn’t appear
in many of the diarists of the day – Joseph Farrington, James Boswell. It’s very difficult for us
to get into the mind of Stubbs and particularly because we are left
largely with his paintings. None of his drawings – almost none of his drawings,
perhaps I should say – have survived. We know from the sale
of his effects after he died that there was a number of drawings,
in fact a number of sketch books. Where they are today, we just don’t know. However, don’t fear, we do have
some way of knowing about Stubbs. And the main way
that we have of knowing about him is a memoir that he dictated
to his friend, Ozias Humphry. Humphry was a miniaturist himself. And in Humphry’s own memoir
there are a few pages dedicated to Stubbs, and even more intriguing, the manuscript of that memoir has some
additions put in by his common-law wife. So we can get a little bit closer,
perhaps, to finding out about the real man. However, these are memoirs
dictated towards the end of his life. And we know that there are some
inaccuracies and some flat-out untruths, so we have to take a lot of these things
with a pinch of salt. Stubbs was born in Liverpool
to a farrier – a man who makes things out of leather,
particularly gloves. A very highly skilled profession,
but a very tough profession. And we know, again from the memoirs, that Stubbs didn’t want
to follow in his father’s profession. At this time it was expected that you
might follow in your father’s profession, but Stubbs didn’t really want to do this. And from a very young age – the age of
eight – he started drawing prodigiously. He couldn’t stop himself. And at around that age, intriguingly,
he was made interested in anatomy. A local doctor gave him some bones,
and he started drawing those bones, and that helped him to become interested
in the workings of the body. A little later, aged about 21,
he moved to York, where he tried
to set himself up as a portraitist. To supplement his income,
he worked teaching drawings, and to supplement that income furthermore,
he started working on anatomy. He became involved
with another local doctor and was hired to provide illustrations
to that doctor’s book on midwifery. These illustrations
are illustrations of pregnant women. Now, let’s think for just a moment
about how it might have been possible for Stubbs to draw anatomical drawings
of pregnant women. Well, the obvious answer is he did
what you are probably thinking he did. He got cadavers of pregnant ladies. And he cut into them
to draw what was inside. Now I think that’s pretty gruesome,
I don’t know about any of you. It seems pretty grim. But Stubbs obviously
wasn’t at all bothered with that. What he was bothered about
was the fact that he, at this stage, didn’t know how to produce etchings. So he had to teach himself, which says, I think, a lot about
the “can-do” attitude of Stubbs, which is that if ever he had a problem, he just worked his way around it
and taught himself how to get out of it. In 1754, he went to Rome – Rome, at that time, becoming
the centre of the European art world, as far as the British were concerned. For many rich tourists, they would set off
around Europe on their grand tour, the end of which was always Rome, where they were expected
to study classical sculpture and architecture, and, through that, learn about the highest level of art
that had been produced in Europe. Around this time –
the middle of the 18th century – lots of British artists were going over to
Rome and living there and working there, some never to return. We don’t really know how Stubbs
could afford to go in 1754. As I said, he wasn’t
a very successful artist at this time, and there is some suggestion that
a local wealthy family – the Nelthorpes – might have paid for him to go. But we don’t really know for sure. Intriguingly,
he wasn’t in Rome for very long, and we have no evidence
that he studied anything or drew anything or copied anything. And in fact, in the memoirs, he told Ozias Humphry that
he came back from Rome and was convinced that the study of classical sculpture
was not the way forward for art, and the thing to do
was to study from nature. Now that, at the time, was a completely
radical and outsider view, and flew in the face of the mainstream,
not just British art, but European art. And I suspect
that maybe it’s the older Stubbs, looking back on his younger days, and putting his subsequent experiences
into the mouth of his younger self. So he came back from Rome
and restarted his career. Now, we don’t know why he decided that horses were his future, but up until this point, he had had
a very unconventional artistic training, largely self-taught. He studied for a very brief amount of time
with a local artist, Hamlet Winstanley, but he fell out with him. So Stubbs at this point,
was completely, really, on his own. Now, one of the core elements
of teaching art in the 18th century was studying the human form, and many young artists
would study sculpture in order to do that. I have been told a number of times that when I talk about paintings,
I move around a bit too much. I get a bit too enthusiastic, wave my hands a little bit too much. So imagine that instead of looking at me
and listening to what I’m saying, you’ve all got pencils
and you’re trying to draw me. How much easier
would that be if I could just stand still? So if I was going to make a pose,
for instance, if I was an artist’s model, or even more still,
if I was made out of marble. Now, imagine how much more difficult
that is when you’re painting a horse, who really doesn’t stay still at all. How might Stubbs think about painting
a horse which isn’t standing still? Well, what he did is,
he used his experience in anatomy. He went off to a small village
called Horkstow. Again we don’t quite know
how he could afford to do this, and again the Nelthorpes
are often suggested as his patrons. And he went off there for 18 months
with his young son and common-law wife. He set up in a barn a series of pulleys, which he used to suspend dead horses. He would inject them with wax,
inject their veins with wax, and then he proceeded
to cut down from the skin on the outside through to the muscles –
layers and layers of muscles – all the way down to the bone. Imagine, here you are in a barn with a rotting corpse that you are
gradually cutting down, bit by bit. And we know that each horse
lasted about 11 weeks. I’ll leave it to you to calculate how many horses
you can get through in 18 months. Huge, laborious, difficult work. At the end of 18 months, Stubbs had produced a number of
incredible, accurate, beautiful drawings of the anatomy of horses. They are well worth looking up if you
find yourself in need of something to do. Go and look at
‘The Anatomy of the Horse’ by Stubbs. They are fantastic
works of draughtsmanship. He took his drawings and went to London, then the centre of the British art world. He started to approach engravers to produce a book
on the anatomy of the horse. And they all rejected him. They all said this was a stupid idea,
and they wouldn’t be involved. So what did Stubbs do? He said he would do it himself, again
showing that can-do attitude that he had. He arrived in London in 1758 and ‘The Anatomy of the Horse’
was not produced until 1766, so that might give you an idea
of how difficult it was for him to engrave all of these very fine,
very difficult drawings. Maybe the engravers were right and didn’t want to be involved
because it was too difficult. He must have had numerous drawings,
many, many drawings, and for a long time, only the 18 drawings that appear
in the book were known to survive. However, luckily for us, in 1962, a little package of drawings
was rediscovered in the RA. So now we have 42 drawings that he made,
but I suspect he must have made many more. He was interested in all aspects
of the horse, rather wonderfully, even horses’ ears. One of the things that he didn’t… …include in his ‘Anatomy of the Horse’ was the internal organs of the horses. And we know from comments he later made that he was not interested
in the internal organs of the horse because they wouldn’t help him
as an artist. One of the main purposes
of this project for him was to help artists understand
the workings of horses. He also wanted people who
were interested in looking after horses – vets and people like that – to buy the book, but his main purpose
was for other artists. So you can see where he’s thinking. This whole project often aligns him
in art historians’ minds with the Enlightenment. He is setting out
to observe the world around him. He’s not learning from previous artists
or other experts. He is going out and teaching himself
through what he can see, not through what
other people can tell him. This is one of the planks
of the Enlightenment. Furthermore, he’s not just learning. He’s writing a book about it
so he can teach others – again, one of the common things
that people say about the Enlightenment. We don’t really know what happened next, but these drawings
must have been made available and must have been seen by other people,
other than engravers. Perhaps Stubbs approached wealthy men
hoping that they might fund his book, or maybe he was looking for subscribers who would pay a little bit
towards funding his book. We don’t really know what
the process of events was. However… …rich men must have seen his drawings, because quite quickly,
having arrived in London, Stubbs started to get commissions from some of the wealthiest men
in Britain at the time. This enabled him, initially,
to buy a house, where he lived for the rest of his life,
in what’s now Selfridges, in fact. The men that Stubbs was involved
with artistically, as patrons, were often referred to as the Rockinghams. They clustered around a man
called the Marquess of Rockingham who, at the time, was one of
the richest men in the country. To give you an idea of how rich he was, if you were a servant,
you might make £4 a year. If you were a vicar, you’d be very pleased
to be making £400 a year. Rockingham could rely on
an income of £40,000 a year. So if you think that there is a wealth
imbalance in today’s Britain, 18th century Britain
would knock that into a cocked hat. Rockingham was very young at this point, but came from a world in which he
was expected – and he expected himself – to be a leader, not just of his own lands,
but of the country. He lived in a house
called Wentworth Woodhouse, one of the largest houses in Europe. It’s not quite clear how many rooms
there were in the house – nobody knew how many
there were in the house, and it had the largest facade
of any house in Europe. He himself had been on the grand tour, had become interested
in classical sculpture, and had set out to buy the best collection
of classical sculpture in Britain and show them in his house,
Wentworth Woodhouse. He and his friends
were also interested in science and also interested in how science
might help them. All of these things, I hope you can see,
might fit in with Stubbs’ project – his project to understand
how horses would work, might work, did work. Rockingham would become Prime Minister
on two separate occasions and lead the Whig Party. So he was an important patron,
an important person. In 1762, he invited Stubbs
to come to Wentworth Woodhouse to paint his horses. He had over 200 horses
in a specially built stable. If you can imagine that he’s living
in one of the biggest houses in Europe, you can imagine how big
the stable for 200 horses might be. One of his passions other than art,
other than science, was horseracing. He had his own horses,
of which Whistlejacket was one, and he gambled prodigiously on racing – a sport for the wealthy then,
probably as it is now. We don’t really know the process
by which Stubbs and Rockingham went about deciding on
what Stubbs should paint. Again, that’s somewhat lost to us. We don’t know whether they sat down
and worked it out together, if they said,
“Well, yeah, this is a good idea,” whether Stubbs arrived
with some preformed ideas and he suggested them to Rockingham, or whether Rockingham said,
“This is what I want,” and told him exactly how to proceed. Personally, I suspect that
it was a combination of these things, that they discussed it
over a length of time, and they came up
with some of their ideas in tandem, in collaboration with each other. But we’ve got no real way of knowing that. Now, one of the things that is very often
said about ‘Whistlejacket’ here, as I mentioned at the beginning, is the lack of background. This, at the time,
was considered to be quite shocking. For most 18th century observers,
this painting would have been unfinished. It would have been waiting
for a background. We know that Stubbs actually did
approach paintings this way quite often. One of his friends was a landscape painter
called George Barrett, who did paint the backgrounds
of some of Stubbs’ horse paintings. However, before Rockingham, he also painted other
portraits of horses with no background, including one of Whistlejacket with the characteristic white band
around his leg here. That portrait has Whistlejacket
and two other stallions and one of the grooms. And it is a rather wonderful painting,
but much smaller than this. I wonder – we have no way of knowing – but I wonder if Rockingham, having seen that original painting
of Whistlejacket and the other horses, liked it. And there is some suggestion that
one of the reasons he might have liked it is that that painting and possibly
this painting might have reminded him of classical freezes. If one thinks about something like,
say, the ‘Parthenon Marbles’, what they didn’t know in the 18th century,
but we do now, is that they would have been painted
quite dramatically. But for classical art lovers
in the 18th century, they assumed that classical statuary
was white. And so to have Whistlejacket
against this background might very well have made
18th-century viewers think about freezes, think about classical sculpture. If that is the case,
I think that’s absolutely fascinating, because we are now suddenly
moving away from thinking about Stubbs as a painter of almost radical realism, moving away deliberately
from ideas of the classics, and learning from the classics, to being a much more complex
and fascinating artist. He was fusing, in some ways,
his approach to painting horses, this realistic way of thinking about them, and adding something quite modern,
for his time, this view of classical statuary and Neoclassicism influences. However, as I say, we don’t really know. One of the intriguing things
about ‘Whistlejacket’ is that although he was
a very important horse, he was a grandchild of
one of the first Arabians to arrive in this country –
the Darley Arabian. There are three Arabian horses from whom
all current and subsequent racehorses are derived, and he was clearly very close
to one of the originals. However, he wasn’t terribly successful
as a racehorse in his lifetime. Rockingham only managed to buy him because
he had not been terribly successful, and by the time Stubbs met him, he had been put out to stud
for about ten years. So he had moved from racing,
from running in front of crowds, to siring other racehorses. His importance was less about the amount
of money he had made on the track and more about the amount of other
great racehorses that he could produce. The other interesting thing
about ‘Whistlejacket’ is that even at the time, he wasn’t a terribly well-known racehorse. Stubbs went on to paint
some very well-known racehorses – Gimcrack, Hambletonian, for instance, who were the most famous horses
of their day. I wonder if, without this painting, we would even remember
Whistlejacket today. So this is a portrait that is doing
something that portraits of humans do, which is making us remember figures
who, otherwise, we might have forgotten. Stubbs… …as I say, left very few records, but we do know that this painting
was paid for by Rockingham in 1762. We have an invoice
which refers to a horse as “Large as life” and a painting of a lion
attacking a horse, which is a theme that Stubbs returned
to again and again throughout his career. Unusually, we know specifically
when this painting was painted. Contemporaries, after Stubbs’ death,
who saw this painting, couldn’t believe
that it had been finished, because there was no background. There is a story that
this is an unfinished painting and it’s waiting for a rider – in fact, not just for any rider, but for King George III
to be painted on top. And what would have happened is that perhaps another artist
would have added the King and the saddle and everything else, and maybe a third artist
would have added the background. So Rockingham might have got three artists
in the top of their field to contribute to this painting. And this was a practice
that did actually occur at this time. Personally, I have my doubts. I have my doubts, largely that Rockingham would
have started this project and stopped it, but also looking at this painting,
it seems to me to be completely finished, completely contained. Because Stubbs painted other portraits, other paintings of horses
without backgrounds for Rockingham, I can’t believe that this is unfinished. This seems, to me,
to be exactly what Stubbs set out to do. One of the amazing things
that I think we can all appreciate in this horse is his beauty, is his nobility, the proud element of him
that gives him his character, as I started saying at the beginning. And one of the reasons that Stubbs
is renowned as being a great painter is his facility of capturing
this kind of character in his horses. His predecessors in horse painting
were people like James Wootton and John Seymour,
who very often painted stock animals – horses that looked very much
as though they could be any horses. Stubbs went on, and he painted other
animals, as well – I’ve mentioned lions. He painted leopards, he painted a zebra,
he painted a yak, he painted a kangaroo. Nonetheless, the poor kangaroo
arrived just as a skin. His kangaroo isn’t very realistic looking. But he was interested in animals
in their entirety and interested in capturing animals,
not just as scientific specimens, but as breathing creatures,
as living creatures, and I think in ‘Whistlejacket’ here
he has absolutely captured that. Thank you very much indeed.

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  1. Thought provoking explanation of Whistlejacket, and his commission. A question I had through many years, has been answered as to the pose. The way Whistlejacket is captured in a half rear, has never looked quite right to me, although stunningly beautiful, there was always this "aspect" that didn't look quite right to me. Having a deep admiration of horses since being a child, I could see something was not quite correct. If we assume Whistlejacket was alive, when sketches were drawn to capture the characteristics of him, the pose was not painted from a living horse. I say this because there is no muscle tension in the hind quarters, through the back and under the belly, as there would be if the horse was alive. It was mentioned that George Stubbs drew from cadavers and this particular work took 18 months, with horse cadavers suspended in a barn, giving rise to the image looking like a "puppet without strings" which in effect when the pose is examined closely, is what is painted.
    Fascinating mini lecture, that I wish I could have attended in person. Thank you National Gallery for making it available for students and enthusiasts alike.

  2. Legend has it when Stubbs was at Wentworth Woodhouse painting Whistlejacket he moved the painting to get better light & suddenly the groom shouted Watch out sir! 
    When he turned round the horse had dragged the groom off his feet & was trying to attack the painting probably thinking it was a real horse (it was lifesize)  Stubbs hit Whistlejacket over the head with his pallet & drove it off until the painting had been moved from the horses view.  When I walk past the old stables I swear I can sometimes hear a horse snorting.

  3. Insane to think this painting is worth more than the magnificent manor house it Originally displayed it! the Wentworth Woodhouse estate .. the should returned all the original artwork furniture and sculptures back to Wentworth and display it in its original setting as a museum much like the J Paul Getty in Los Angeles Hearst castle..

  4. A farrier does not work with gloves, rather there word comes from the French 'fer' which means 'iron'.  So a farrier is a smith who works specifically with horses, making and fitting their shoes.

  5. Sick of people commenting on things that are trivial to the painting itself. Just enjoy the content of this FREE lecture. I found it very interesting. Thanks for uploading!

  6. I have a standing horse picure inherited from my father i like it unfortunately i didnt have possibility to ride but I enjoyed your explonation.

  7. I would have enjoyed this more if the chap had done some proper research. Farriers don't make gloves! They shoe horses, at that time it would have been an extended role of a blacksmith, this would help to explain why Stubbs had managed to teach himself to etch and engrave. Who is this "Rockingham" he refers to. The Marquess of Rockingham is a position, not a name. It is like refer to the vicar of Dibley as Dibley. The persons name was Charles Watson-Wentworth.

  8. Painting magnificent, drew me close attention to this painting of horse Whistlejacket. This painting conveys a strong, brave and courageous horse and very well applied in the painting, I love being able to sit in front of my computer, and to assimilate content on art history, I love the channel of The National Gallery, content very well addressed and explained by Matthew Morgan, continue with this beautiful work of transmitting art to the world, a big hug to all involved of The National Gallery, from Recife, BRAZIL. It would be a dream to visit this gallery someday.

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