Johann Georg de - or ‘von’ as he came to be known - Hamilton was one of three painter sons of the artist James Hamilton. Originally from Scotland, by 1688 James Hamilton had settled his family in Brussels and established his reputation as a painter of still life. Like his two brothers – Philipp Ferdinand (c. 1664-1750), who became court painter to the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I, and Karl Wilhelm de Hamilton, called ‘Thistle-Hamilton’ (c. 1668-1754) – Johann Georg spent his career as a court painter in Central Europe. He moved to Vienna in 1689, and after time in Germany working for Prince Adam Franz Karl of Schwarzenburg, returned to Vienna in 1718. As well as completing commissions for the Princes of Liechtenstein, it was at this time that Johann Georg was appointed Court Painter to Joseph I’s successor Charles VI, to whom the inscription on the rock in the latter picture of this pair refers. It was largely in this capacity that Johann Georg gained the sobriquet ‘the Viennese Wootton’ as he was, above all, a painter of horses and hunting scenes. He focused his attention particularly on the Emperor’s famous Lippizaners, for which Charles VI commissioned the building of the Winter Riding School in 1729 – until that time the stallions were trained in a wooden arena in the Josefplatz.
The two stallions in these paintings are of Italo-Hispanic origin and were probably bred at the famous Eisgrub stud belonging to the Princes of Liechtenstein, from where the Riding School horses were chosen. At certain times these stables, founded by Prince Karl Eusebius (1611-1684) and later enlarged to rival the size of the palace, housed up to 120 stallions of various breeds, which were admired across Europe for their gait, long manes and tails, and their handsome ‘Roman noses’. The milk-white colour of full-grown Lippizaner horses that is so familiar today was bred more formally in the nineteenth century, following a change in fashion; Johann Georg’s painting of The Imperial Riding School in Vienna (The Collections of the Prince of Liechtenstein, Vaduz Castle) shows that before this time piebalds, ‘tigers’ and ‘isabelles’ were prized just as highly.
The richly-embroidered saddle coverings seen in these pictures are typical of those used on ceremonial occasions and reflect the high status of the horse in the world of the aristocracy at the time. The figure wearing oriental costume is testament to the international appeal of stately horses, and is suggestive of the exchanges that were taking place between Europe and the East in princely courts, of which Johann Georg would have been very much aware. The figure holding the bay horse is, broadly speaking, dressed as an English jockey of the period, and it is possible that this pair may once have been part of a larger series, with attendants attired in varying Continental outfits, further emphasising the widespread appeal of the Austrian breeds.