Research point: Skeletal structure of the horse / Anatomical drawings of George Stubbs

Look at the skeletal structure of the cat, dog or horse

horse-skeleton-merck-manualsThis is potentially a  big topic so I will narrow it down by adopting the viewpoint of the artist and consider what I can learn from looking at the skeleton of a horse that would improve my drawing.

I found several pictures of horse skeletons on the internet, including one that had the bones marked up in layman’s language which was a help.

Studying these images I noticed that:

  • horse-skeleton2The horse has a long and deep rib cage – 18 pairs of ribs compared with 12 in humans. The rib cage takes up nearly three quarters of the main body.
  • The back and front legs are different in terms of the overall length and the proportions of the individual bones.  The legs don’t hang down straight from the shoulders and hips.
  • The outline of the back follows the back and neck vertebrae with a dip midway. The neck starts to rise upwards from the shoulder blades. The tail is a continuation of the backbone.
  • The skull has a kind of truncated triangle shape.
  • The phalanges – the bones above the hoof are important in getting the distinctive horse character, watch out for the  angles.
  • When galloping the horse has all four legs off the ground at times. The front legs curl in and the back legs fold up. You would be unlikely to observe this directly as the speed of motion would cause the legs to blur. When a horse trots the motion is quite different and much more elegant with two legs always touching the ground.
  • horses-running

It’s become apparent to me that even a basic understanding of the skeletal structure of animals is of enormous help when drawing, particularly if the creature is moving, as the knowledge supports direct observation and will increase the chances of making good drawings that reflect  correct proportions, realistic angles, viable range of movement etc.

(This quick study is just a beginning but I can see now that with the ‘Grabbing the chance’ exercise a little time spent looking at the skeleton of the giraffe at some stage before my final drawings would have been beneficial.)


Horse skeleton picture – Merck Manuals
Horse running photos: Bridgeman Education

Research the anatomical drawings of George Stubbs (1724-1806) and consider how these inform Stubbs’s finished pieces.


George Stubbs, an engraving from The Anatomy of the Horse.
Published in London, England, AD 1766 (British Museum)

George Stubbs was an exceptional English painter who is most known for his paintings of horses. The son of a prosperous tanner, Stubbs was briefly apprenticed to a painter but was mainly self-taught. He was interested in anatomy from an early age.

Stubbs studied anatomy at the York Hospital (c.1745) and while there he illustrated Dr John Burton’s Essay towards a Complete New System of Midwifery (1751), from drawings of dissections he had helped with. He then taught himself himself how to engrave them and these 18 small etchings published anonymously were his first exercises in printmaking.

Whistlejacket about 1762, George Stubbs

Whistlejacket, about 1762, George Stubbs. The National Gallery

It was probably in 1756 that Stubbs began intensive study of the anatomy of the horse which he had planned during his time at York Hospital (c. 1745) but postponed until he could devote himself fully to the project.

For about 18 months he worked in a rented farmhouse at Horkstow, Lincolnshire, near tanneries that supplied him with dead horses. He devised tackle for hauling them into lifelike attitudes and stripped away layers of skin and muscle to the skeleton, making drawings and notes at every stage. He was assisted by Mary Spencer, his common-law wife.


Finished study for ‘The First Anatomical Table of the Skeleton of the Horse’, 1756-1758 (Royal Academy)

This conjures up some grim visions but Stubbs was driven by his desire to gain the knowledge needed to paint living horses and his upbringing as the son of a tanner, combined with the hospital experience, is likely to have given him the confidence, nerve and skills to tackle the project

When he published The Anatomy of the Horse (1766), he described himself on the title-page as ‘George Stubbs. Painter’. The 42 surviving drawings (London, RA) include working drawings and meticulous finished drawings which he used to create the etched plates for publication.

GEORGE STUBBS (1742-1806) 'Mares and Foals in a River Landscape', 1763-68 (oil on canvas)

GEORGE STUBBS (1742-1806)
‘Mares and Foals in a River Landscape’, 1763-68 (oil on canvas)

The Anatomy of the Horse became a major work of reference for naturalists and artists and Stubbs soon established a reputation as the leading painter of horse portraits with numerous commissions. His horse pictures include hunters and racehorses as well as more informal pictures of horses and foals in landscape settings. Stubbs also painted dogs and wild animals as well as human portraits, often of the horses’ owners.

Stubb’s pictures stand out because the horses (and other animals) he depicts are beautiful and realistic. His extraordinary knowledge of anatomy enabled him to capture natural postures and muscle tone as well as the horses shining coats, grace and strength. His exceptional understanding of their muscular and skeletal structure  enabled him to depict horses realistically whether formally posed with their owners, rearing up or quietly grazing.  He gained his insights from dead horses but the the horses he painted always look alive – as if they might flick a tail, toss their heads or gallop away any moment.


Encyclopaedia Britannica

Oxford Art Online


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s