What could be more magnificent to a Georgian gentleman than a fine stallion with fiery eyes and beautiful confirmation (musculature), a thoroughbred horse known to have won an important race and who could sire other champions? George Stubbs, a painter who specialized in horse and dog portraiture, painted Whistlejacket on commission for the Marquess of Rockingham in 1762. When it isn’t on loan to another museum (this oil painting is on exhibit in York through August) this arresting, iconic, and almost life-sized image hangs in the National Gallery in London.
Whistlejacket was foaled in 1749, and his most famous victory was in a race over four miles for 2000 guineas at York in August 1759. Stubbs’s huge picture was painted in about 1762 for the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, Whistlejacket’s owner and a great patron of Stubbs. According to some writers of the period the original intention was to commission an equestrian portrait of George III, but it is more likely that Stubbs always intended to show the horse alone rearing up against a neutral background. (Description of the painting on the National Gallery website, image from Wikimedia Commons)
George Stubbs was born in 1724 in Liverpool. Largely a self-taught painter, his fame among aristocratic horseman and sportsmen as a painter of animals was at his height when Jane Austen began to write First Impressions. The artist’s interest in horse and human anatomy equalled his interest in painting, and he studied the subject to such an extent that he was commissioned to illustrate a book on midwifery in 1751 by Dr. John Burton. His ground-breaking book, the Anatomy of a Horse, was published in 1766. Stubbs, whose paintings hung in the private collections of the great houses of his aristocratic patrons, and who was highly regarded in these circles, as well as among the naturalists of his day, did not find general fame until he was rediscovered in the 20th century. To this day, most of Stubbs’s painting remain in private collections.
The origin of the name, Whistlejacket, is interesting. In Yorkshire, the local name for the treacle/gin drink was ‘whistle-jacket’. When made with brandy instead of gin, the color of the drink would have resembled the color of this palomino stallion’s coat.
The painting is more like a candid photograph, capturing the essence of the horse’s beauty and energy in a split-second shot. The horse is sensuous with its chestnut gleam and rounded, muscular form. Whistlejacket’s eye does not meet the viewer’s; instead, it seems to look inward, contemplating. (Art Straight From the Horse’s Mouth)
To read more about George Stubbs (1724-1806), click on the links below:
- Listen to a podcast or read about The Anatomy of a Horse on NPR’s Engines of Our Ingenuity
- George Stubbs on Brits at Their Best
- Click here to see a reproduction of the painting in an outdoor exhibition in London, The Grand Tour, Image #8.