Biography of George Stubbs, English Painter

Best remembered for his detailed paintings of horses and other animals

Sotheby's Old Master's Press View
'Two bay hunters in a paddock' by George Stubbs, est. £1.5-2 Million, goes on view as part of Sotheby's London Old Masters Evening Sale, on December 1, 2017 in London, England. Getty Images for Sotheby's / Getty Images

George Stubbs (August 25, 1724 - July 10, 1806) was a self-taught British artist known for his exquisite paintings of horses informed by an intensive study of the animal's anatomy. He received many commissions from wealthy patrons to paint their horses. His most famous portrait is of the racehorse "Whistlejacket." Stubbs occupies a unique niche in British art history separate from that of other 18th century painters such as Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds.

Fast Facts: George Stubbs

  • Occupation: Artist (painting and etching)
  • Born: August 25, 1724 in Liverpool, England
  • Parents: Mary and John Stubbs
  • Died: July 10, 1806 in London, England
  • Spouse: Mary Spencer (common-law wife)
  • Child: George Townly Stubbs
  • Selected Works: "Whistlejacket" (1762), "Anatomy of the Horse" (1766), "Painting of a Kangaroo" (1772)

Early Life and Education

Almost all that is known about the early life of George Stubbs comes from notes made by his fellow artist and friend Ozias Humphry. The informal memoir was never intended for publication, and it is the record of conversations between Stubbs and Humphry when the latter was aged 52 and the former 70.

Stubbs remembered working at his father's trade, the dressing of leather, in Liverpool, until age 15 or 16. At that point, he told his father that he wished to become a painter. After resisting at first, the elder Stubbs allowed his son to pursue the study of art with painter Hamlet Winstanley. Historians believe that the arrangement with the elder artist lasted little more than a few weeks. After that point, George Stubbs taught himself how to draw and paint.

george stubbs self portrait
"Self Portrait" (1780). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Interest in Horses

From his childhood onward, Stubbs had a fascination with anatomy. At approximately age 20, he moved to York to study the subject with experts. From 1745 to 1753, he worked painting portraits and studied anatomy with surgeon Charles Atkinson. A set of illustrations for a textbook on midwifery published in 1751 is some of the earliest work of George Stubbs that still survives.

In 1754, Stubbs traveled to Italy to bolster his personal conviction that nature was always superior to art, even of the classical Greek or Roman variety. He returned to England in 1756 and rented a farmhouse in Lincolnshire, where he spent the next 18 months dissecting horses and studying the design of their bodies. The physical examinations eventually led to the publication of the portfolio "The Anatomy of the Horse" in 1766.

A Look Inside Palace House: The National Heritage Centre for Horseracing And Sporting Art
An anatomical study of a horse by George Stubbs is displayed in a gallery space at Palace House, the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art on May 2, 2017 in Newmarket, England. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Aristocratic art patrons soon realized that George Stubbs' drawings were more accurate than the work of earlier noted horse painters like James Seymour and John Wooton. After a commission in 1759 from the 3rd Duke of Richmond for three large paintings, Stubbs had a settled financially lucrative career as a painter. In the following decade, he produced a large number of portraits of individual horses and groups of horses. Stubbs also created many pictures on the topic of a horse attacked by a lion.

Stubbs' most famous painting is "Whistlejacket," a portrait of the renowned racehorse rising up on his hind legs. Unlike most other paintings of the time, it has a plain, single-color background. The painting now hangs in the National Gallery in London, England.

Painting Other Animals

George Stubbs' animal repertoire extended beyond pictures of horses. His 1772 painting of a kangaroo was probably the first time many British people ever saw a depiction of the animal. Stubbs also painted other exotic animals such as lions, tiger, giraffes, and rhinoceroses. He usually observed them in private collections of animals.

Many wealthy patrons commissioned paintings of their hunting dogs. "A Couple of Foxhounds" is a prime example of this type of portrait. Stubbs painted dogs with an attention to detail rarely seen in the work of other painters of the time.

george stubbs couple of foxhounds
"A Couple of Foxhounds" (1792). Leemage / Getty Images

Stubbs also painted people and historical subjects, but his work in those areas is still considered more ordinary than his equine paintings. He accepted commissions for portraits of people. In the 1780s, he produced a series of pastoral paintings titled "Haymakers and Reapers."

With the patronage of the Prince of Wales, later King George IV, established in the 1790s, Stubbs painted a portrait of the prince on horseback in 1791. His final project was a series of fifteen engravings titled "A Comparative Anatomical Exposition of the Structure of the Human Body With That of a Tiger and a Common Fowl." They appeared between 1804 and 1806 shortly before the death of George Stubbs at age 81 in 1806.

Legacy

George Stubbs was a minor figure in British art history until the mid-1900s. Famed American art collector Paul Mellon bought his first Stubbs painting, "Pumpkin with a Stable-Lad" in 1936. He became a champion of the artist's work. In 1955, art historian Basil Taylor received a commission from Pelican Press to write the book "Animal Painting in England - From Barlow to Landseer." It included an extensive section on Stubbs.

In 1959, Mellon and Taylor met. Their mutual interest in George Stubbs eventually led to Mellon funding the creation of the Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art, which today is the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art at Yale University. The museum connected with the centre now holds the largest collection of Stubbs paintings in the world.

george stubbs whistlejacket
"Whistlejacket" (1762). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The auction value of George Stubbs's paintings has risen considerably in recent years. The record price of 22.4 million British pounds came at a Christie's auction in 2011 of the 1765 picture "Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a Trainer, a Stable-Lad, and a Jockey."

Source

  • Morrison, Venetia. Art of George Stubbs. Wellfleet, 2001.