"Whistlejacket" — this is a portrait of a beloved British racehorse, created Stubbs in 1762. One of the most recognizable and popular of his works.
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.
"Whistlejacket" is a life-size portrait. The story goes that Stubbs made this painting in a stable while Whistlejacket posed for him. When it was finished, Stubbs stood it against a wall to view it from a distance. Whistlejacket also saw the picture and recognised it as a real horse. He even got ready to attack. For his owner, that was the ultimate proof that the painting was perfect as it was. The background remained empty, giving it a timeless appearance.
The origin of the name, Whistlejacket, is interesting. In Yorkshire, the local name for the treacle/gin drink was 'whistle-jacket'. When made with brandy instead of gin, the color of the drink would have resembled the color of this palomino stallion’s coat. Whistlejacket was foaled in 1749, and his most famous victory was in a race over four miles for 2000 guineas at York in August 1759.
The stark simplicity of this composition is part of its appeal. Except for some discreet shadows the horse itself is very much isolated, and in complete focus where ever you look.
Below is a 25-minute discussion by the National Gallery on this unique and memorable painting.
The National Gallery London