George Stubbs was the greatest painter of animals of his day. He was celebrated especially for his representation of horses, the forms and nature of which he captured with a remarkable understanding and sensitivity. After a start as a portrait painter, in 1754 he traveled to Rome, where his study of antiquity probably informed the classical design of many of his compositions, with their elegant curves, pleasing profiles, and allusions to relief sculpture. Upon his return from this brief sojourn, for nearly two years Stubbs single-mindedly carried out equine dissections and made anatomical studies at an isolated Lincolnshire farm. Unable to find a printmaker to render his subtle drawings, Stubbs etched them himself and produced a book that became a model study of animal anatomy, The Anatomy of the Horse, published in 1766. He established his artistic reputation in London during the 1760s, offering a hard-won naturalism in his animal paintings.
Stubbs’s characteristically uncompromising spirit, and his quest for calibrated composition and balanced tones, are clearly evident in this portrait of Lord Grosvenor’s young Arabian stallion. He employs a low horizon, with rolling hills and soft foliage, to effectively display the warm tones of the chestnut Arabian. (An early reproductive print of the painting shows that the landscape was originally a good deal more extensive to the left; the canvas seems to have been cut down on that side in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.) The sprightly mien of the colt, ears pricked and nostrils wide, is set in contrast with the reassuring demeanor of the groom. The artist meticulously portrays its genetic Sabino markings—the broad blaze, white stockings, and white spots on the belly and sides.