Whistlejacket, Life Size Portrait of a Horse by George Stubbs

I’ve always loved horseback riding, and as a child, I read every horse book I could find. One of my favorites was King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry. So, when I stepped into gallery 34 in London’s National Gallery of Art and saw the life size portrait of Whistlejacket, I stood there, amazed by such a beautiful animal.

Let’s Learn about the Horse

Born in 1749, Whistlejacket was an Arabian stallion and a grandson of the Godolphin Arabian—the King of the Wind of Ms. Henry’s book. Her story was based on several legends about the Godolphin, but one thing is certain. He was one of 3 Arabian stallions British breeders imported between 1690 and 1730 to become foundation sires for the thoroughbred breed. All thoroughbreds are said to be descended from these three stallions: the Godolphin Arabian, the Byerley Turk, and the Darley Arabian. Whistlejacket did fairly well as a race horse, but was retired early to sire more thoroughbreds.

 Let’s Learn about the Artist

George Stubbs, self portrait, public domain

George Stubbs was born in Liverpool in 1724. He loved to draw and was interested in anatomy. He may have been briefly apprenticed to a painter, but was mostly self-taught. George later moved to York and painted portraits and taught drawing.

After returning from a short visit to Rome, Stubbs decided he needed to learn from nature, not classical sculptures. So, he moved to a rural area and for 18 months dissected horses and studied their anatomy. He made detailed drawings that he published in a book in 1766. The Anatomy of the Horse became a reference for artists and naturalists, but only a few pages survive.

His reputation as a painter of horses grew, and in the early 1760s the Marquess of Rockingham, one of the wealthiest men in Britain, commissioned Stubbs to paint several of his horses, including his prize stallion, Whistlejacket.  During his career, Stubbs studied and painted other animals, too, but is still best known for his horse paintings

 Let’s Learn about the Painting

Whistlejacket, c. 1762 by George Stubbs, National Gallery, London, public domain

This painting is huge—about 9 feet tall and 8 feet wide. Whistlejacket is life size, and is just as much a portrait as Renoir’s portrait of Julie Manet and her Cat, because it’s a particular horse. Whistlejacket was a chestnut horse with a flaxen mane and tail. He also had a white star and one white sock. Apparently, he was named for a popular cold medicine that was about his color. We can also glimpse a little of his character from his pose and his face turned towards us.

Although, Stubbs has painted Whistlejacket very realistically, he’s used loose brushwork on the horse’s flank. Closeups also show the edges as being a little blurry. No one knows if Stubbs did this on purpose, but it does make Whistlejacket look more active.

It was once thought that Stubbs left the painting unfinished, because there’s no background and no rider in the tradition of grand equestrian paintings like Napoleon Crossing the Alps by French artist Jacque-Louis David.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1801-1805 by Jacques-Louis David, public domain

Most experts now believe Stubbs left it plain and with no rider on purpose to show off the beauty and spirit of Whistlejacket. Whistlejacket is also shown doing a levade, one of the “airs above ground,” practiced in the classical dressage of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna or by the Cadre Noir of Saumur, France. Only the most powerful and best-trained horses can do these movements.

Whistlejacket, c. 1762 by George Stubbs, National Gallery, London, public domain

 Let’s Enjoy the Painting Together

Before telling children too much about the painting, ask them to tell what they think is going on in the painting and what tells them that.

  • Ask them if the painting is of a real horse or not. And why they think that.
  • Do they like the horse’s color?
  • Do they think the horse is tame or wild?
  • Is the horse painted realistically or not?
  • If you haven’t told them the name, ask what they’d name the horse

Use their observations and the information about the horse, the artist, and the painting to help them further enjoy it.

2 Takeaways for More Fun

Art Activity Suggestion

If you have a child who loves horses, they might enjoy learning to draw them. There are many tutorials online for drawing horses, as well as drawing books available at bookstores or libraries.

A Little Inspiration from God’s Word

Horses are prey for many animals, such as wolves, and the best way for horses to protect themselves from predators is to run away quickly. So, God has given them an amazing feature that helps save precious seconds when a predator approaches. They have a special combination of tendons and ligaments called the stay apparatus that locks the major joints in their legs so they can stand while they sleep. That way horses can grab some shut eye and still be ready to run at a moment’s notice. God, in His wisdom, knew just what each creature needed to survive and thrive! Genesis 1:24-25.

Picture of Molly the Artsy Corgi

Horses may be able to sleep while standing, but not dogs! Molly fell asleep under the tree after a busy Christmas morning.

Before You Go

If you’d like more activity ideas for art, history, and nature, curriculum connections, and links to more resources, be sure to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free guide, 5 Ways Art Benefits Children’s Cognitive, Physical, Spiritual, and Social Development, You’ll also get a Few Fun and Easy Activities for each Benefit.

Visit Molly’s and my website where you’ll find free downloadable puzzles, how-to-draw pages, coloring pages for kids, and an updated list of my hands-on workshops, chapels, and presentations for all ages.



12 thoughts on “Whistlejacket, Life Size Portrait of a Horse by George Stubbs

  1. Becky Van Vleet

    That painting is beautiful, Kathy. I can’t imagine how magnificent it must look to see it in real life in those dimensions you provided. I enjoyed learning how God designed horses to get away from preditors.


  2. JD Wininger

    While I see them everyday, I can’t say that I ride much at all (don’t bounce as well as I used to), but that doesn’t take away from my appreciation of their beauty, gracefulness, power, and strength. While thoroughbred, but far was “racing stock”, I love those large working horses (Belgians and Clydesdales) also. If you’ve ever seen a cow pony working, it’s an artform indeed Ms. Kathy. So enjoyed the history behind this painting. Thank you ma’am.


    1. Kathy O'Neill Post author

      I have watched cow ponies working, and their laser focus on the cow and ability to out think it is amazing. I’ve heard many times that quarterhorses have “cow sense”! And I know from experience that quarterhorses are all round good horses, sensible and hard working! I loved the one I rode for several years in Oklahoma! Happy New Year to you and Ms. Diane, J.D.! Take care of yourselves. I’m looking forward to more spiritual wisdom from the Cross Dubya!


  3. Katherine Pasour

    Ah…another horse lover–I feel right at home. As a child and teenager, I was an avid reader of anything to do with horses. I’ve read Marguerite Henry’s book, but had forgotten the specific history of the Arabians, although I did remember their connection to Thoroughbreds. Thank you for sharing this beautiful picture of Whistlejacket and reminding me of some happy long-ago memories.


    1. Kathy O'Neill Post author

      You’re so welcome, Katherine. Those books were such a part of my growing up, too, and I still have my old copy of King of the Wind! I think that not only did those earlier writers inspire me with a love of horses (and dogs and good stories) but also with a love of God’s creation! May your New Year be a blessed one, my friend.


  4. Jeanne Takenaka

    Kathy, what a fascinating post! I learned a ton from what you shared. One thing I loved was how George Stubbs lived his passion. When he went away to study nature–horses–what an intentional life choice to pursue what he was passionate about. I also loved learning about the Arabians and all that you shared about horses.


    1. Kathy O'Neill Post author

      Thank you so much, Jeanne! I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re so right. Stubbs is a great example for us of someone who pursued his passion despite some discouraging times. I hope all is going well for you, my friend.

      Liked by 1 person


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