Today recognised as one of the great equestrian artists of all time, George Stubbs was a self-taught artist with a passion for accuracy in his work. He was the first horse artist to achieve entirely realistic depictions of horses on canvas, bringing the then under-appreciated genre of horse painting to a level where it could be recognised as serious art.

Stubbs was born in 1724  in Liverpool, the son of a currier and leather merchant. Not much is known about his early years, except that he worked with his father in his teens and after his father’s death in 1741 he was briefly apprenticed to a printer and engraver. He had a passion for anatomy and studied human anatomy for several years in his twenties, while working as a portrait painter.

His view was that nature is superior to art and he travelled to Italy to view the art treasures there only to confirm this conviction, soon returning thankfully home to the English countryside. Here he laid the foundations to his future career by studying horse anatomy in great detail for 18 months, dissecting and drawing every layer of the horse from skin, to muscle to bones, so that he understood exactly how the whole related to the parts. His book The Anatomy of the Horse is still a definitive work on the subject today.

The accuracy of his subsequent horse paintings gained him several aristocratic patrons, who commissioned portraits of their best horses. This established his reputation and made him prosperous enough to afford a house in a fashionable part of London.

While it was his accuracy and detail that made his name, his horse paintings went far beyond mere scientific studies. The horses he portrayed had character and energy, whether painted against an idealised natural landscape or on a neutral background. It was a real departure from the traditions of the time to leave a background neutral in a painting, and the several that remain have an amazingly modern feel. The most notable is perhaps Whistlejacket – a portrait of a prancing horse commissioned by the Marquess of Rockingham. It now hangs in the National Gallery in London.

As well as horses he continued to paint portraits of people and of exotic animals such as lions, tigers, rhinoceroses and giraffes, observed in the fashionable private menageries of the time.. He continued painting and making anatomical studies right into his old age and died in 1806 at the age of 81 with a project still in progress.

While horse painting was not viewed as a prestigious genre in the eighteenth century, Stubbs is recognised today as one of the grand masters of his time. His last painting sold made a record $36 million at auction in 2011.

By yanam49

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