Mauritshuis The Hague

The Mauritshuis in Den Hague, the Netherlands, presents an exhibition about England’s most celebrated horse painter: George Stubbs (1724-1806). This artist established his reputation with exceptional compositions of horses, which he painted in a lifelike fashion that was unprecedented. An in-depth study of the horse’s anatomy, for which the artist dissected the animals himself, laid the foundations for his success. The exhibition George Stubbs – The Man, The Horse, The Obsession brings together 13 paintings, 10 anatomical drawings and the skeleton of the most famous racehorse of all time: Eclipse. Exhibition:20 February – 1 June 2020.

George Stubbs
Working drawing for ‘The Second Anatomical Table of the Muscles of the Horse’, c.1756-1758
Pencil, black and red chalk, red and brown ink, 48.4 x 61 cm
London, Royal Academy of Arts
(bequeathed by Charles Landseer RA, 1879)

Highlight

The extraordinary highlight of the exhibition George Stubbs – The Man, The Horse, The Obsession is the enormous (2.92 x 2.46cm) portrait of the racehorse Whistlejacket of 1762: an iconic work in which Stubbs painted the horse against an entirely empty background. This is the first time that this masterpiece from The National Gallery in London has travelled to mainland Europe.

George Stubbs
Whistlejacket, c.1762
Canvas, 292 x 246.4 cm
London, The National Gallery
(bought with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, 1997)

50s and 60s

The exhibition focuses on a significant period in Stubbs’ career: the 1750s and 1760s. During this period, Stubbs quickly developed to become the leading horse painter in his country. His clients belonged to England’s elite – they owned large country houses with art collections, estates with stables and sometimes even stud farms. Equestrian sports were and continue to be a favourite pastime in England, a way of life even, and with his specialism, Stubbs had found a perfect niche in the art market. A special feature of Stubbs’ pictures is that he painted true portraits of horses (rather than paintings with horses in them), which were instantly recognisable to their owners. He knew like no other how to capture both the physical attributes of a horse and its character, with a great respect for the bond between humans and animals. A magnificent example of this is the portrait of the high-spirited stallion Blank, being held by his groom ‘Old Parnam’.

George Stubbs
Portrait of Joseph Smyth Esquire, Lieutenant of Whittlebury Forest, c.1762-1764
Canvas, 64.2 x 76.9 cm
Cambridge, The Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge

Scientific Approach

For Stubbs, the careful study of nature lay at the heart of his artistic endeavours. His unusual scientific approach made him a true artist of the Enlightenment. Thanks to his anatomical knowledge, Stubbs was able to paint horses in an unparalleled manner. This was the trump card that elevated him above his predecessors – and his contemporaries. In 1766 Stubbs published The Anatomy of the Horse, a pioneering book with detailed illustrations that brought the artist international acclaim: it became the standard work on equine anatomy. Examples of this book are on view in the exhibition, alongside rare anatomical drawings made by Stubbs.

George Stubbs
Horse devoured by a Lion, 1763
Canvas, 69.2 x 103.5 cm
London, Tate
(purchased in 1976)

Clients

The life-sized portrait of Whistlejacket will also be on view in the exhibition. On account of its size, the perfect rendering of the horse’s body and the intriguing empty background, the painting is the best-loved work in Stubbs’ oeuvre. Whistlejacket was a racehorse belonging to one of Stubbs’ most important and wealthy clients: the prominent politician Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham.

George Stubbs
The Duke of Ancaster’s Grey Turkish Horse with a Turkish Groom at Creswell Crags, c.1763-1764
Canvas, 101 x 126.8 cm
The Trustees of the Grimsthorpe & Drummond Castle Trust Limited

Stubbs painted a total of twelve works for him, four of which appear in the exhibition. The portrait of Whistlejacket, which today forms part of the collection of The National Gallery in London, has only been exhibited outside of the United Kingdom once before and the exhibition at the Mauritshuis marks its first appearance in mainland Europe.

Eclipse (1764-1789) was a thoroughbred racehorse that, thanks to his unmatched speed, won all its races between 1769 and 1770 and went down in history as ‘Eclipse first and the rest nowhere’. When people no longer dared to put up a horse against Eclipse in 1770, the animal became an extremely successful sire. Almost all of today’s thoroughbreds are descended from Eclipse, including one of the most famous American racehorses of the 20th century: Secretariat (1970-1989). After its death, Eclipse’s skeleton became part of the collection at the Royal Veterinary College. In the exhibition, Eclipse’s skeleton will be displayed together with a rare oil sketch that Stubbs made when the horse was still at the start of its distinguished career.

George Stubbs
Finished study for ‘The Second Anatomical Table of the Skeleton of the Horse: anterior view’, c.1756-1758
Pencil and black chalk, 35.6 x 18.4 cm
London, Royal Academy of Arts
(bequeathed by Charles Landseer RA, 1879)