Tuesday, September 21, 2010

George Stubbs Equestrian Portraits

There is perhaps one thing that comes to mind with the mention of the artist George Stubbs which would be the horse.  Like Monet with his flowers, Stubbs' had a fascination with his four-legged muses, and he was in good company.  Many aristocrats (the same people who commissioned his paintings) shared Stubbs' love of horses and requested their prize stallions and mares be immortalized.  Anyone who has visited the National Gallery in London can't miss Stubbs' portrait of Whistlejacket, the Marquess of Rockingham's prized racehorse, painted against a neutral background in order to not take away from the beauty of the horse.  The painting is placed at the end of the gallery so you see it from far away, adding more majesty to the stallion and more credit to Stubbs' talent.

Stubb's talent was not limited to horses, or even the many cherished pets he portrayed.  Overall, he was fantastic at portraying nature and his sitters' relationship to nature.  Those who commissioned Stubbs for portraits were the aristocrats who tended to trade city life and the gaming tables for their majestic country estates.  Portraits of sitters riding about their property do two essential things: prove the sitter is in touch with nature and display their wealth by portraying their ability to own thoroughbreds and large vasts of land.

Joseph Smyth Esquire, Lieutenant of Whittlebury Forest, Northamptonshire, on a Dapple Grey Horse, c.1762-64

Countess of Conings by Livery of Charlton, c1760

Laetitia, Lady Lade, 1793

John and Sophia Musters riding at Colwick Hall, 1777 
William Anderson with Two Saddle-Horses, 1793
Baron De Robeck Riding A Bay Hunter, 1791
Self-Portrait, 1782

Stubbs' lack of formal training adds a sense of folk art to the portrayals which make them all the more charming and appropriate to hang in those country homes.  Although there is a sense of portraying the animal perfectly, which is lost on other aspects of the painting, that same painstaking skill is used in rendering the sitter's face.  The true joy of painting can be seen in the background, in which Stubbs used a whole different technique in order to capture the landscape.  His ability to capture all these varying elements easily transforms viewers into the work. I particularly enjoy his equestrian portraits because you feel as if you could just ride away into the painting with the sitters.


  1. Many people don't always pick up on the folk art aspect, too terrific of you! The combination of them looking so majestic yet folksy give his work an air of friendliness, there goes the squire down the road again on his lovely dapple grey. They are stunningly beautiful creatures, but you feel like you could walk up & pet them & that would be okay. You are welcome to be there viewing this, it is not some stolen glimpse at something you have no business looking at. His horses do look like you could mount up & ride off. What fun that would be!

    He really sits down & gets a good understanding of what it is he's looking at & why it looks the way it does, ie, the muscles & the skeleton underneath & they way the skin & hair move over that, yet nowhere near the formal training of some of his contemporaries. His skills of obsevation had to have been trememdous, it's not like he could have opened a book & looked at the skeletal & muscle structure of whatever it happened to be that he was painting, at least not in the early days, books were a little pricey. But all that detail is coveyed with such an amiable elegance. I love his work & enjoyed studying him in college art history & I have adored horses since my earliest memories, so there you go. :) Thank you for posting this.

  2. I don't like them at all. I don't see the beauty in them. I like more formal portraits. The only one of Stubbs that is even ok is Laetitia, Lady Lade, 1793.

  3. I remember some art historian telling me that Stubbs horse painting were not considered that good at the time because of his folk influence - ie. he doesn't really paint perfectly anatomically correct horses. I absolutely love his equestrian paintings the best. These make me really miss riding. Thanks for the post!

  4. Though I do love the paintings, I see that all of his horse's tails are 'banged'. I'm wondering if this was the common aesthetic at the time or if he was just better at this look than the long, flowing tails. (which, unless you're going to do dressage or you have some other way of keeping the insects off your horse, you should leave natural anyway)

    No, they're not anatomically correct, but they're really very nice, just the same.

  5. I have a few comments to add to this in relation to the post and also to the comments left. Whistlejacket was actually going to be part of a large equestrian portrait with Stubbs only painting the horse and others painting the landscape and rider because his specialty was the horse. The choice to leave it on the background was the Marquess because of how spectacular it was.
    @ Bearded Lady - it's not that his artwork was considered bad, because it wasn't. He was the preeminent animal portraitist of his time and made good money doing it. Sporting art as a genre was considered less important than most forms of painting at the time. Stubbs himself knew the proper way to paint and draw horses and studied their anatomy INSANELY well. He even did an anatomy book all about the horse. His folky influence is less about his style and more about him sticking with the fashion of the day for country houses. Take a look at Stubb's later work and you can see that he did know the horse anatomy exactly.
    @ nightsmusic - Banging the tails was the fashion of the day as was cutting the ears which you can see on John Muster's horse in 'John and Sophia Musters riding at Colwick Hall, 1777'. It was believe that keeping them short was better for hunting and riding out since the tail would not be caught in brush and fences while riding out.

    Good books to peruse on the subject:

    Stella A. Walker, Sporting Art England 1700-1900 (New York, 1972).

    M. Warner and R. Blake, Stubbs and the Horse (London, 2004).

    Basil Taylor, Stubbs (London, 1971).

    Stephen Deuchar, Sporting Art in Eighteenth-Century England: A Social and Political History (London, 1988).

    Judy Egerton, George Stubbs, 1724-1806 (London, 1984).

    and of course his own book 'The Anatomy of the Horse' which can be found on Amazon.

  6. I also wanted to add that at one point in time both Sophia and John Musters were painted out of this Stubbs' painting. It was only in the late '80s that restorers realized what was behind the layers of paint and restored it to it's original form. The painting was commisioned as a wedding portrait of sorts and when Mrs. Musters began to stray John purportedly had them painted out in a fit of jealously.

  7. The tails on the horses...so Lady gaga...

  8. This portraits are lovely!
    I sincerely love the one of Laetitia and the one with the couple riding together: the country, your honey on a beautiful beast like the horse, riding in your natural but elegant state ahh just a dream coming true...

  9. Am late leaving a comment but wanted to thank you for these wonderful Stubbs paintings. I do feel as if I could walk into the picture and be at home, just as Cant't see sheep writes. Sheep, your commentary was excellent! Katherine Louise

  10. Thank you everyone! I have been enjoying all of your comments just as much!