Text by Geoffrey Smith
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This astonishing canvas executed on a truly monumental scale dominates the room even though it is one of the largest rooms in the National Gallery and despite the fact that it contains some of the greatest and best loved works of British art. Standing in front of this magnificent beast makes you feel as though you are in the presence of a truly charismatic being. One is certainly in the presence of a great artist. Stubbs has infused life and character into every sinew and bone within the huge life-size frame of Whistlejacket; the horse exudes a visceral vigour as he rears above the viewer, his coat shining with good health, his mane and voluminous tail, the small white flash on his head and the white colouration of his near hind leg, all forming a foil to the even chestnut colour of the rest of his body. No landscape or extraneous decoration is allowed to impinge on our admiration of this beautiful animal; the neutral background, a most unusual device, seems perfect.
Of course Stubbs was by no means just a horse painter. He painted many compositions in which landscape and people are of more or equal importance to the animal, which is invariably present. And he painted many other types of animal, sometimes being employed by naturalists, such as Sir Joseph Banks, to create an accurate record of exotic species. But the horses painted by Stubbs are in a different league to anything produced by his contemporaries or indeed since. Naturally, all this was not achieved without an intimate knowledge of his subject matter. In the mid–1750s he worked for eighteen months with the corpses of horses supplied by local tanneries, studying their anatomy by carefully stripping away layers of muscle to gradually reveal the skeleton beneath, laboriously sketching each stage of the dissection. The results of these and subsequent studies were published as The Anatomy of the Horse in 1766 illustrated by eighteen plates engraved by Stubbs himself.
This portrait, for that is what it is, was commissioned by the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham who, in his desire to record the fine proportions of a favourite animal has given to us the image of the archetypal horse.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1762 Thomas Gainsborough: The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat, London, National Gallery
1764 Joshua Reynolds: Anne Dashwood as a Shepherdess New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
1765 François Boucher: Landscape with a Young Fisherman and his Companions, Manchester City Art Gallery