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Friday, 10 October 2014

Whistlejacket: George Stubbs' Masterpiece

The author and Whistlejacket
By Richard Carreño
[WritersClearinghouse News Service]
There's no lack of works by George Stubbs, the gifted 18th-century English animal and sporting painter, in museums around the world, particulary those in the United States and here in Britain. The largest number, with hundreds of oils, etchings, engravings, and other works on paper, is located at the Yale Center for British Art, thanks to the museum's founder and benefactor, the late, great philanthropist Paul Mellon. Mellon's keen interest in Stubbs (1724-1806) is also on generous display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Even the Philadelphia Museum of Art has several examples of his work. Over here, the Tate Britain easily fills a few gallery walls with the master's pictures.
Here and elsewhere, we see Stubbs as he almost single-handedly launched the figurative animal genre, in portraits and in landscapes that burst with the kind of real-life energy that invested many of the greenswards of country homes and stables manicured by Capability Brown's verdant hand.

Aristocratic horsemen, their grooms, and jockeys may often populate these scenes. But despite their presence, it's always the horse we care about most. Even in paintings in which horses don't figure, the setting is always sufficiently pastoral that, at any given minute, the viewer wouldn't be surprised if a foal or two trotted on to the canvass. Stubbs' marvelous dog pictures can stand alone. But they also summon up a country life wherein a mounted gentleman or two would never be out of place.

To completely understand Stubbs, then, requires focusing on what Stubbs produced in his highest form of achievement, that as equine genre painter. Be it in the stable yard, at the track, or on hunt course, Stubbs' greatest strengths are most plentifully orchestrated when expressed as the fully-realized horse painter.

In these settings, Stubbs pioneered realism -- undergirding the skins of his animal subjects with skeletal and anatomical accuracy. (How? For one thing, he actually dissected horses to discover their inner makeup). In Stubbs' world of realism, horses no longer looked like the stick figures of previous centuries, or even the primitive representations that American Indians were then painting on buffalo hides in the New World. Stubbs' horses were subjected to gaits; their legs moved with the kind of accuracy that was confirmed only later when photography came into its own a century on.
One might quibble regarding which painting best represents Stubbs at his peak.
We can disregard his lovable poodles. Hounds, cows, leopards can also be set aside.

Is it, then, Horse Attacked by Lion (1762), an imagined scene that evokes a horse's combative strength and weakness to predatory fate? 
Maybe even Hambletonian: Rubbing Down (1800), with its zoom-like graphic power?
To my mind, the answer is in the National Gallery here.
It's called Whistlejacket, painted in the artist's in 38th year. Many great years of great paintings lay ahead. But for a moment in 1762, the year that Whistlejacket was created, some of Stubbs' most visionary and creative influences and skills merged into one -- producing what was to become a monumental canvass -- almost ten feet square -- of the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham's prized Arabian stallion.

The best way to approach the picture is via the Gallery's Sainsbury wing on the west side of Trafalgar Square. (At least, for Philadelphians. The Sainsbury addition, constructed in 1991, was designed by the Philadelphia architectural firm of Venturi, Scott Brown Associates). Proceeding up the grand stairway, one turns right to travel through two or three galleries of Renaissance pictures, and, then, framed by an approaching gallery's doorway, one beholds the imposing full-frontal view of Whistlejacket canvass.
And its power and glory. Nicknamed 'A Horse as Large as Life,' Whistlejacket is Stubbs' only life-sized painting. It's also clearly his masterpiece.
Given that there is no background, the portrait is all horse. In fact, some critics used to posit that the picture was unfinished until it became evident that Stubbs was actually breaking away from the constraints of 18th century academic painting -- venturing, even, with Rockingham's consent, into the modern.
How that came about was collaborative. And due, interestingly enough as well, to Rockingham's passion for collecting sculpture, an appreciation kickstarted during his Grand Tour of Italy.
Well before Whistlejacket, Stubbs had already started doing away with backgrounds, most notably in, the aptly named, Mares and Foals Without a Background. The idea was create string of horses as if patterned into a frieze. Whistlejacket was modeled as sculpture on canvass.
For an Arabian, Whistlejacket is big, well over fifteen hands and racehorse size. He's no bombproof gelding. One wonders whether he's about to bolt? His stance suggests yes. His glinting right eye, directed at the viewer, is equally uninviting. Beware! He rears -- soars? -- on his hind quarters. As in real life, the viewer might feel it prudent to step back and stand clear. You can almost hear the snort and whinny.
Whistlejacket in fact had a thing or two to say about that realism. While Stubbs was painting the life portrait, the story goes, he took a break and placed the almost-finished canvass against a stable wall. Whistlejacket inadvertently caught a glimpse of the work, and was so taken by the belief that he was confronting a raging stallion that be began 'to stare and look wildly at the picture, endeavouring to get at it, to fight and kick it.'