GEORGE STUBBS at Mauritshuis, The Hague

George Stubbs, Blank, de bruine hengst van de Duke of Ancaster, begeleid door Old Parnam. c.1761. The Trustees of the Grimsthorpe & Drummond Castle Trust Limited


Enter the exhibition wing and you immediately notice the stunning painting at the end of the larger exhibition room. George Stubbs’ Whistlejacket is to the UK, what Rembrandt’s The Night Watch is to the Netherlands: iconic. Like the The Night Watch it is also large: nearly 3m x 3m.

Thanks to the efforts of Ms Gordenker, now the Van Gogh Museum’s new director, this treasure left London’s National Gallery, to be exhibited on the European continent for the first time! At the Mauritshuis, a wonderful pastel-blue background ensures this stunning portrait of the rearing stallion with its beautiful chestnut-gold colouring, makes visitors stop and stare.

Actually, the painting was commissioned as an equestrian portrait of King George III. But on seeing it unfinished, Stubbs’ client was impressed. No background, nor king – this was it: a portrait of a beautiful thoroughbred!

In an exhibition called The Man, the Horse, the Obsession, this is not the only horse. The focus is on a specific period in Stubbs’ artistic career. His obsession with horses, which dates from about 1755 to 1770.

On each wall drawing the visitor’s eye to Whistlejacket, are smaller works. Some are of specific breeds, like The Duke of Ancaster’s Grey Turkish Horse. Others show famous race horses or hunting scenes. One of my favourites: Lord Torrington’s Hunt Servants Setting Out – look at the docile spaniel!

How did this obsession with horses start? Likely with a short visit to Rome, where Stubbs saw a Greek statue of a lion attacking a horse. He later painted similar scenes, one of which is in this exhibition.

On returning from Rome, Stubbs retreated to a farm from 1756-1758. There, he dissected and drew horses to study their anatomy. In this, he resembled Rembrandt, who attended and painted anatomy lessons. In the case of Stubbs, it ensured he drew and painted horses like no other artist before him.

Though largely self-taught, Stubbs published his scientific The Anatomy of the Horse in 1766. This groundbreaking publication with his own illustrations, earned him international fame as a scientist and artist. This ensured more commissions from wealthy horse-lovers to paint their race horses, stallions, breeding mares, foals.

Opposite Whistlejacket, to the left on entering this exhibition, is the small exhibition room. It displays a portrait of Stubbs. But what grabs anybody’s attention: that skeleton! Not just any horse’s skeleton: meet Eclipse!

Behind the skeleton is one of several works by Stubbs of Eclipse. Stubbs was reputed to capture a horse’s character and Eclipse’s was awful – as shown. He was also an unbeatable race horse; so when he died, scientists wanted to know what made him so special. This ensured his skeleton survived and was loaned to this exhibition. It is surrounded by a selection of scientific studies and a copy of Stubbs’ Anatomy of the Horse.

Seen enough Stubbs? Visit the museum’s permanent collection. Apart from an anatomy lesson by Rembrandt, there are works by Dutch painters obsessed with horses and cattle: Philips Wouwerman and Paulus Potter.  Kate    20th February 2020

The exhibition continues until 1st June 2020.