Year after year, Britain's National Gallery in London sells more postcards and posters of George Stubbs' Whistlejacket -- a nine-foot tall, life-sized portrait of a rearing horse -- than of any other work in its collection.
It must be the sheer size of it. There's something about the humongous proportions that grabs you and won't let go. Now Whistlejacket is at the Walters Art Museum, the first time it has ever been outside Great Britain, and it's the undisputed star of the new exhibition, Stubbs & the Horse.
A picture with unique appeal ought to have an equally unique story, and Whistlejacket's doesn't disappoint. It was commissioned by Charles Watson-Wentworth, the Second Marquess of Rockingham, a statesman, Whig party leader and supporter of independence for the American colonies.
Rockingham was also an avid breeder of blue-ribbon racehorses, and of all the animals in his stables, his favorite was Whistlejacket, his champion stallion.
Rockingham wanted to commemorate Whistlejacket's noble career by depicting him as the mount of King George III. The work was to be completed in stages, with Stubbs painting the horse's likeness and landscapist and portrait specialists finishing up by painting the background and the king's portrait.
But when Rockingham saw Stubbs' completed portion of the work, he decided to leave it just as it was.
That's the legend, at least. Another version has it that Rockingham and the king fell out, and that afterward the marquess no longer wished to see George astride his beloved horse.
(Still another legend has the real Whistlejacket seeing his portrait one day, mistaking it for a rival horse and attacking it.)
In any case, Stubbs' painting was something of a milestone in art history.
As Eik Kahng, the Walters' curator for 18th- and 19th-century art, noted recently, "nobody had ever attempted a life-size rearing horse with no horseman or other narrative context to justify its representation."
Whistlejacket remained in the marquess' family until 1997, when the National Gallery acquired it. The museum celebrated by projecting an image of the painting against its outside wall that was even larger than Stubbs' original. Ever since, Whistlejacket has been the single most popular artwork in its collection.