My memory is jogged by a news story about a George Stubbs painting that had been sold at auction in December for a record $15.5 million. The memory is about a different painting, one that most horse lovers have at least seen a picture of: Whistlejacket.
For many years, starting when I was in art school, I’d had a tiny postcard of Whistlejacket taped to my easel for inspiration. That, and a postcard of Rosa Bonheur’s The Horse Fair were the first things I’d see when I walked into my studio each day. Whistlejacket inspired me with its simplicity of a single equine gesture; The Horse Fair inspired me with Bonheur’s ability to capture equine chaos in a grand sweep of light and dark. I studied my copy of Stubbs’ Anatomy, learning volumes about the bone and muscle structure of both horses and humans from his work, and I’d been fortunate enough to see several of his paintings, as well as The Horse Fair, in New York museums. But I didn’t see the actual painting of Whistlejacket in person until a few years ago.
Axel and I were in England for the Hickstead CDI, and we took a trip into London to visit the National Gallery. I spied Whistlejacket from 50 yards away, because they had placed it in the center of the far wall at the end of the galleries. In contrast to all the other ornate and complex paintings around it, its composition is so simple and striking that it stands out at a great distance, and I felt drawn to it magnetically. I don’t think I even looked left or right at the rest of the magnificent artwork that lines those galleries as I walked toward it. In my head it had always been small enough to hold in my hand, because of that postcard. Of course part of me had known that it was huge, but the fact had never really settled into my head.
I’ve been known to get emotional in art museums. I guess that’s part of why I’m an artist! I stood there in front of the life sized painting (it’s 8′ x 10′), teary eyed, absorbing its scale and scope and the nuances of hues and brushwork, the stuff that you just can’t get from looking at a postcard. I simply couldn’t step away from it. It was like seeing the old friend who had inspired me to start my life’s work.