Stubbs’s reputation as a painter of horses pervades today to the extent that it is scarcely mentioned that Stubbs only began painting horses in his thirties. Why Stubbs decided to move to the Lincolnshire countryside and turned to horses is unknown, however, the importance of the horse to the fabric of the eighteenth century and Stubbs’s interest in looking towards nature for artistic inspiration may be sufficient an answer. Horses in all their incarnations were the eighteenth century versions of the tractor, tank, motorbike and racing car; the powerful creature deserved detailed study, yet, no one before Stubbs attempted the challenge.
The difference between the horses painted before and after Stubbs are exemplary in illustrating his influence on the discipline. Anthony van Dyck, an extremely influential portraitist, who was also known for his portrayal of horses did not have the necessary knowledge to paint the creature as convincingly as Stubbs could. The momentous leap in equine portraiture and sporting pictures was the product of Stubbs’s exhausting work culminating in the publication of The Anatomy of the Horse in 1766.
During their time in Lincolnshire, Stubbs and his wife, undertook the gruesome task of hanging corpses of horses from the ceiling by using iron bars and hooks. According to Oziah Humphrey’s Memoir, or Particulars of the Life of Mr Stubbs, Stubbs injected ‘the muscles, the blood vessels, and the nerves so that they retain’d their form to the last without undergoing any change of position’. Stubbs would then strip away layers of skin, revealing the muscles that were to be carefully drawn and accompanied by explanations. Stubbs would continue in the same manner until he reached the skeleton and the cadaver was no longer of any use.
Notably, Stubbs’s anatomical studies lack the limp, macabre quality associated with dead animals and instead have been presented in such a way that the horse seems ennobled and full of spirit. It is abundantly clear from the outcome that Stubbs was a technically gifted dissector, a professional skill he gained in his early twenties while working with Surgeon Charles Atkinson. Stubbs demonstrated a keen intellect and strong interest in anatomy throughout his life and was known to dissect small animals even as a child. Stubbs did not only produce the drawings for the illustrations but also all of the engravings Portrait of a Gentleman upon a Grey Hunter is a marvellous example of the naturalism and accuracy that Stubbs was able to achieve due to his detailed anatomical studies.