Stubbs and the Horse AT Kimbell Art Museum
November 14, 2004 FORT WORTH, TEXAS.
George Stubbs, Whistlejacket, c. 1762, oil on canvas. The National Gallery, London. Bought with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, 1997.
George Stubbs (1724–1806) was a versatile genius whose work includes paintings, prints, and detailed anatomical studies. His many images of horses show a classical beauty, expressiveness, and heroism previously reserved for the human figure. Organized by the Kimbell Art Museum, Stubbs and the Horse is the first major exhibition to focus on this central theme in Stubbs’s work—from refined portraits of racehorses to dramatic scenes of horses attacked by lions in the wild—and celebrates the artist whom many consider to be the greatest painter of horses in the history of art.
The exhibition’s centerpiece is the monumental Whistlejacket, the most widely admired of Stubbs’s works since its acquisition by the National Gallery in London in 1997. This breathtaking work has never before been seen outside Britain.
Commented Timothy Potts, director of the Kimbell Art Museum, “Over the past fifty years, George Stubbs has emerged from behind the rubric of ‘sporting art’ to be appreciated as a painter of major significance in 18th-century European art. This exhibition is the first to focus on the central theme of his work, and highlights the full scope and brilliance of his achievement as a horse painter as never before. From the grand, life-size portraits like the celebrated Whistlejacket, to more intimate portrayals of racehorses with their jockeys and trainers, Stubbs and the Horse provides vivid testimony to why so many have considered Stubbs the greatest horse painter in European art.”
Stubbs and the Horse is organized by the Kimbell Art Museum in association with the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, and the National Gallery, London, and is curated by Malcolm Warner, senior curator at the Kimbell. Principal support for the exhibition is provided by JPMorgan Chase. Additional promotional support is provided by American Airlines, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and NBC5. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Many of Stubbs’s works remain in British country-house collections, and several will be lent to the exhibition by descendants of the patrons for whom he originally painted them. Other lenders include Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; the Royal Academy of Arts, London; the Tate, London; the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven; the National Gallery, London; the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
The foundation of Stubbs’s career as a painter of horses was his knowledge of equine anatomy. While in his early 30s, he spent approximately 18 months dissecting and drawing the bodies of horses at a remote farmhouse in northern England. Out of his gruesome, messy, and unhealthy labors came the impeccably ordered and beautiful book The Anatomy of the Horse, published in 1766. It contained 18 plates etched by him from his drawings and more than 50,000 words of meticulous scientific text.
Stubbs worked mostly for the horse-loving British nobility and gentry. Although he took advantage of the burgeoning public art exhibitions in his lifetime, showing and selling a number of his works at the annual exhibitions of the Society of Artists and the Royal Academy in London, the mainstay of his patronage was the private commission. He painted portraits of favorite racers, hunters, and stallions, scenes of mares and foals at stud farms, and draft animals, from the fine carriage horse down to the humble carthorse. With the creation and development of the English thoroughbred, the 18th century was the golden age of horse breeding and racing in Britain. Stubbs came on the scene at a moment of high excitement, and profited from the desire of owner-breeders to record and celebrate the equine world that was their pride and joy. They knew horses, and wanted an artist who knew them just as well.
Settling in London at the end of the 1750s, where he lived and worked the rest of his life, Stubbs attracted commissions from some of the wealthiest men in Britain. Among them was Lord Grosvenor, the owner of vast estates in Cheshire and London. From Stubbs he commissioned several idyllic scenes of mares and foals and portraits of his favorite horses, including Lord Grosvenor’s Arabian Stallion, with a Groom. It was from imported Middle Eastern and North African stallions like Grosvenor’s that British breeders had created the thoroughbred.