George Stubbs (25 August 1724 – 10 July 1806) was an
English painter, best known for his paintings of horses.
Stubbs was born in Liverpool, the son of a currier and leather merchant.
Information on his life up to age thirty-five is sparse, relying almost entirely on
notes made by fellow artist Ozias Humphry towards the end of Stubbs's life. Stubbs
worked at his father's trade until he was 15 or 16.
After his father's death in 1741, Stubbs was briefly apprenticed to a Lancashire
painter and engraver named Hamlet Winstanley, but he soon left as he objected to
the work of copying to which he was set. Thereafter as an artist he was
self-taught. In the 1740s he worked as a portrait painter in the North of England
and from about 1745 to 1751 he studied human anatomy at York County Hospital. He
had had a passion for anatomy from his childhood, and one of his earliest surviving
works is a set of illustrations for a textbook on midwifery which was published in
In 1754 Stubbs visited Italy. Forty years later he told Ozias Humphry that his
motive for going to Italy was, "to convince himself that nature was and is always
superior to art whether Greek or Roman, and having renewed this conviction he
immediately resolved upon returning home". In 1756 he rented a farmhouse in the
village of Horkstow, Lincolnshire, and spent 18 months dissecting horses, assisted
by his common-law wife, Mary Spencer. He moved to London in about 1759 and in 1766
published The anatomy of the Horse. The original drawings are now in the
collection of the Royal Academy.
Even before his book was published, Stubbs's drawings were seen by leading
aristocratic patrons, who recognised that his work was more accurate than that of
earlier horse painters such as James Seymour, Peter Tillemans and John Wootton. In
1759 the 3rd Duke of Richmond commissioned three large pictures from him, and his
career was soon secure. By 1763 he had produced works for several more dukes and
other lords and was able to buy a house in Marylebone, a fashionable part of
London, where he lived for the rest of his life.
His most famous work is probably Whistlejacket, a painting of a
prancing horse commissioned by the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, which is now in the
National Gallery in London. This and two other paintings carried out for Rockingham
break with convention in having plain backgrounds. Throughout the 1760s he produced
a wide range of individual and group portraits of horses, sometimes accompanied by
hounds. He often painted horses with their grooms, whom he always painted as
individuals. Meanwhile, he also continued to accept commissions for portraits of
people, including some group portraits. From 1761 to 1776 he exhibited at the
Society of Artists of Great Britain, but in 1775 he switched his allegiance to the
recently founded but already more prestigious Royal Academy of Arts.
Stubbs also painted more exotic animals including lions, tigers, giraffes,
monkeys, and rhinoceroses, which he was able to observe in private menageries.
His painting of a kangaroo was the first glimpse of this animal for many
18th-century Britons. He became preoccupied with the theme of a wild horse
threatened by a lion and produced several variations on this theme. These and other
works became well known at the time through engravings of Stubbs's work, which
appeared in increasing numbers in the 1770s and 1780s.
Stubbs also painted historical pictures, but these are much less well regarded.
From the late 1760s he produced some work on enamel. In the 1770s Josiah Wedgwood
developed a new and larger type of enamel panel at Stubbs's request. Stubbs hoped
to achieve commercial success with his paintings in enamel, but the venture left
him in debt. Also in the 1770s he painted single portraits of dogs for the first
time, while also receiving an increasing number of commissions to paint hunts with
their packs of hounds. He remained active into his old age. In the 1780s he
produced a pastoral series called Haymakers and Reapers, and in the early 1790s he
enjoyed the patronage of the Prince of Wales, whom he painted on horseback in 1791.
His last project, begun in 1795, was A comparative anatomical exposition of the
structure of the human body with that of a tiger and a common fowl, fifteen
engravings from which appeared between 1804 and 1806. The project was left
unfinished upon Stubbs's death at the age of 81 on 10 July 1806, in London.
Stubbs's son George Townly Stubbs was an engraver and printmaker.
The record price for a Stubbs painting was set by the sale at auction of
Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a Trainer, a Stable-Lad, and a Jockey
(1765) at Christie's in London in July 2011 for £22.4 million. It was sold by the
British Woolavington Collection of sporting art; the buyer was unidentified.
The British Royal Collection holds 16 paintings by Stubbs.
Two paintings by Stubbs were bought by the National Maritime Museum in
Greenwich, London after a public appeal to raise the £1.5 million required. The two
paintings, The Kongouro from New Holland and Portrait of a Large Dog were both
painted in 1772. Depicting a kangaroo and a dingo respectively, they are the first
depictions of Australian animals in Western art.