Five mares and two foals, feeding from their mothers, stand out against a plain setting, unhampered by a countryside background. Minimal foreshortening gives the composition an almost classical feel, reminiscent of relief friezes on ancient buildings. The mare second from the left, and the one on the far right, are most likely in the last stages of gestation, soon to have foals of their own. Painter George Stubbs has arranged the horses so as to give us a sense of perceiving them in the round, three-dimensionally.
Painted for racehorse owner and Whig politician Lord Rockingham, in 1762, "Mares and Foals" was hung in its owner's home, as was the fashion.
Stubbs greatly admired works of antiquity for their balance and harmony; the equestrian monument of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, for instance, shows him controlling a powerful horse with effortless skill.
Interestingly, however, the proportions of the horses in this equestrian monument, and of similar pieces, tend to be exaggerated. Their heads were usually made smaller than lifesize and their bodies sometimes impossibly well-fed and well developed. Instead of copying these idealised forms, as was the artistic tradition, Stubbs preferred to imitate their grace and status in his paintings, yet produce images of horses with improved accuracy. His supreme knowledge of horses came from studying them first-hand - and from his interest in anatomy.
As a young man in his 20s, while working as a portrait painter in York, Stubbs performed dissections at the County Hospital on miscarried human foetuses. Later, after returning from a trip to Italy to see works by great masters such as Raphael and Michelangelo, he set up a studio at Horkstow in Lincolnshire. There he spent as long as 11 weeks at a time studying and dissecting the carcasses of horses layer by layer, presenting his findings in etchings to show skeletal frameworks, muscles and networks of blood vessels.
He took these studies to London where they were eventually printed in 1766 in a book, The Anatomy of the Horse, which was the first set of anatomical drawings to be published of horses since the 16th century. This visit to the capital enabled him to meet some very wealthy horse owners who would patronise his work for many years. Stubbs's artistic talent and near obsession with the subject of horses was much in demand during the Golden Age of horse-racing, which saw the founding of the Jockey Club in 1752. To decorate country mansions, Stubbs would be commissioned to paint prize-winning thoroughbreds, sometimes, as here, pictured on a neutral background, and at other times grazing in tranquil landscapes; both styles far removed from the hustle and bustle of the racing world.
When it was published, The Anatomy of the Horse provided a wealth of information for artists, farriers and anatomists. At a time when veterinary science hardly existed (Britain's first veterinary college was first established in 1791) farriers were entrusted with matters of horse health, rearing and breaking. With their lack of medical knowledge and an accepted belief among most people at the time that animals should be valued purely in terms of their usefulness to man, their treatment of horses was, especially compared to today's standards, rather brutal.
In Europe, however, the 1718th-century intellectual Enlightenment was starting to question such anthropocentric views. New ideas about man's relationship with other creatures were being formulated by scientific reasoning rather than faith. Controversially, speculation was growing about evolutionary links between species, led by the work of naturalist and poet Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, whose work was truly to revolutionise the way we think about animals and their relation to ourselves.
Over the course of his lifetime, Stubbs played his part in this transformation of attitudes towards animals. In his paintings and in The Anatomy of the Horse he helped people understand that animals have comparable structures and organs to man and, hence, the capacity to feel pain. He extended such work in his later years with an anatomical project looking at the links between humans, tigers and chickens. In his career he also managed to challenge the traditional place of animals in art. A hierarchy of genres in painting had long existed in 18th-century Britain where images depicting historical events and illustrations of mythological and biblical stories were held in the highest esteem. Portraits of people were positioned below these "history" paintings and at the bottom of this ladder were pictures of animals.
By painting horses from life and uniquely capturing their individuality, Stubbs elevated such paintings from merely decorative pieces for country houses to "portraits". There are several stories telling how his depictions of horses were so lifelike that both animals and people believed they were looking at the real thing. Such attention to detail can be seen in "Mares and Foals" where the horses look as though they are almost breathing, and even more clearly in Stubbs's life-size profile of "Whistlejacket". Made in 1762, this painting shows Lord Rockingham's greatest racehorse and stud rearing powerfully on his back legs while at the same time unnervingly eyeballing the viewer from the side.
l You can see "Mares and Foals" and the National Gallery's "Whistlejacket", along with many examples of Stubbs's anatomical studies, in a major exhibition in the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery until September 25 (pound;8, pound;7 seniorconcessions, pound;3 students12 to 18-year-oldsunemployed, under 12s free. Family ticket pound;16).
A special education private view of the exhibition will be held on Friday, September 16, 6.30-8.30pm. For a free invitation for you and a guest tel: 020 7747 5891.
For further reading, a catalogue to accompany the exhibition, entitled Stubbs and the Horse by Malcolm Warner and Robin Blake (published by Yale University Press, pound;19.95), is available from the National Gallery online shop www.nationalgallery.co.uk
Karen Hosack is head of schools education, National Gallery
Art and design
Pin up this picture of "Mares and Foals" in the classroom and invite pupils to think about different backgrounds and make soundscapes for these on a tape recorder.
Make a collection of animal pictures and sort them into different groups, for example mammals, amphibians, fish, birds, reptiles and insects.
Identify where Stubbs's paintings fit into these groups.
Research equestrian works of antiquity, such as the monument of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, and compare the proportions of the horses to those in "Mares and Foals". Discuss reasons why classical sculptures shrunk the size of horses' heads and exaggerated other areas of the body.
Using this image of "Mares and Foals' and "Whistlejacket" (available from the National Gallery shop and online at www.nationalgallery.org.uk) explore the lifelike qualities of Stubbs's horses. Use this to inform first-hand observational work of real animals.
Ethics and citizenship
How have animal rights issues changed since the 18th century?