George Stubbs, Whistlejacket, 1762. Oil on canvas, 115" x 97."
I tend to evaluate paintings based on what I see - I essentially never make judgements based on subject matter. So there I was at the National Gallery standing in front of this large canvas by a somewhat obscure 18th century painter of animals, trying hard to sort of my muddled feelings. Was it a good picture, or did I like it because it's a careful life size rendering of a champion race horse?
First a little history: George Stubbs was born in Liverpool in 1724. In his late teens he was briefly apprenticed to a painter in Lancashire, but found the work tedious, and had no more formal training afterward. By the 1760's, he was one of the leading horse painters (!?) in England.
Whistlejacket was owned by the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, and his most famous win was in the 1759 2000 Guineas, the first leg of the English Triple Crown. The Marquess Commissioned Stubbs to paint a life-size portrait in the very early 1760's.
On to the painting: The ground is flat and I mean flat - despite the passing resemblance to an earth-toned, Velasquez type of ground, it has little space, little atmosphere. The stubborn flatness is only briefly hollowed out by the two short cast shadows under the rear hooves.
And the cropping is odd. Whistlejacket appears to be lowering his tail in order for it to fit into the picture; it falls to a nearly perfect vertical, and shows no motion despite the fact that the horse is rearing. And although he's somewhat crammed in by the left-hand framing edge, he has plenty of room over his head - the enormous expanse of negative space over his back, neck, and head goes on for quite a while and threatens to make the deadly change from negative space to blank space (but doesn't).
The real star of the show is the rendering of the horse's coat. That particular satin sheen of a healthy horse is on display in all its glory, painted with great skill. And clearly, this is what either Stubbs or the Marquess wanted us to see, because there's no much else in the picture to look at.
So is it a good picture? Well, I like it quite a lot, but if it was a painting of a dog, hamster, or giraffe, I bet I wouldn't have spent much time in front of it to see if there was anything to like. And if that sounds like a dodge, it is, but it's still my final word on the matter.