The Whistlejacket painting by George Stubbs

Most horse lovers have seen the iconic Whistlejacket. It’s a unique piece of art for its size — a stunning 9-1/2 feet tall by 8 feet wide — and its lack of background. Some art enthusiasts have surmised that the painting was unfinished and another artist or two were intended to add a background, but the general consensus is that the painting was meant to look just the way it does. The shadows near Whistlejacket’s back hooves seem to indicate that the portrait is finished.

The artist, George Stubbs (1724-1806), was so fascinated by equine physiology that he performed numerous dissections of horses and posed the cadavers in different ways so he could understand how the equine body moves. A close study of Whistlejacket reveals that Stubbs captured the horse’s veins, muscles, and imperfections along with his intensity and athleticism.

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In 1762, Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham and later a two-term British Prime Minister, commissioned Stubbs to create portraits of some of his racehorses, including Whistlejacket. The Rockingham family kept the painting of Whistlejacket until 1997 when the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square in London purchased it for £11 million, or almost $18 million.

Foaled in 1749, Whistlejacket was sired by Mogul, a son of the Godolphin Arabian, and he was also descended from the Byerly Turk and the Bloody-Shouldered Arabian. A successful racehorse, Whistlejacket was famous for having lost only four races in his six-year career, although he left little mark on the Thoroughbred breed. He was a spirited and difficult horse, and one legend says the real Whistlejacket was furious and lashed out at the painting when he saw it.

The Godolphin Arabian by Stubbs

The Godolphin Arabian portrait by Stubbs. The Godolphin Arabian was the grandsire of Whistlejacket.

George Stubbs was well-known for his 18th century paintings of horses and other animals. Even today equine artists study his drawings from The Anatomy of the Horse (1766) to learn about equine physiology. Some of his other famous paintings include the Godolphin Arabian and Horse Attacked by a Lion.

By the way, the name “Whistlejacket” comes from an 18th century cold remedy containing sloe gin and caramelized sugar syrup.

You can view Whistlejacket up close at the National Gallery and research the stallion’s sire line at Thoroughbred Bloodlines.

Below is a 25-minute discussion by the National Gallery on this unique and memorable painting.