Gary Vikan, director of The Walters Art Museum, said: “To call George Stubbs ‘just a horse painter’ is like calling Leonardo da Vinci ‘just a painter of humans.’
Actually, Stubbs is to the horse as Leonardo is to the human, since both were the first to understand and convey the workings of their subject from the inside out, based on a profound understanding of anatomy.”
For many years Stubbs (1724-1806) was regarded as a mere painter of animals for a narrow circle of sporting clients. Thanks in large measure to the advocacy of the late American philanthropist and art collector Paul Mellon, Stubbs is now recognized as not only the greatest painter of horses ever, but as one of the most important British artists of the 18th century.
His paintings are increasingly considered on par with such celebrated contemporaries as Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. Stubbs’ remarkable equine anatomical renderings, moreover, have earned him the sobriquet of the “Leonardo of the 18th century.”
The English artist’s achievements are showcased in “Stubbs And The Horse,” an exhibition organized by Malcolm Warner, senior curator at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The exhibition debuted there and ran through Feb. 6, when it traveled to The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore where it will run from March 13-May 29. Thereafter, it will travel to the National Gallery in London for exhibition from June 29-Sept. 25.
Comprising 40 major paintings and 35 drawings, the exhibition offers something for every horse lover. A 229-page exhibition catalog, with insightful essays and 110 color and 131 black-and-white illustrations, is available for $55 (hardcover) and $29.95 (soft-cover). Published by the Kimbell in association with Yale University Press, this book will be a valuable addition to many libraries.
The show and catalog confirm Stubbs’ gifts as a painter of horses and chronicler of the world around them during the heyday of the horse in Great Britain. In carrying out commissions for English nobility and landed gentry, Stubbs not only raised horse and sporting paintings to the level of high art, but painted accomplished “conversation pieces,” landscapes with figures, portraits, and rural genre scenes that are acknowledged as masterpieces today.
Stubbs is best known for his portrayals of horses and handlers in elegant settings, and passionate and terrifying scenes of horses attacked by lions.
Because he was so immersed in the world he depicted, a review of his career offers fascinating insights into the horse-obsessed society and culture of 18th century England.
A Thorough Knowledge
Born in Liverpool, one of seven children of a currier and leather-maker, Stubbs worked in his father’s trade until his mid-teens. Showing early talent for drawing, after his father’s death in 1741, he apprenticed briefly with a professional painter, but he was essentially self-trained.
With his mother’s help, Stubbs spent four years at home, teaching himself how to paint and pursuing his earliest and most enduring passion, anatomy. He undertook dissections of horses and dogs, while supporting himself with portrait painting.
Following a 1754 visit to Italy, he incorporated the classical balance and restraint he observed in that country into his own art. In Italy Stubbs apparently studied Hellenistic animal sculpture, particularly that dealing with the theme of lions attacking horses, a subject to which he famously returned later on.
In the late 1750s, on an isolated farm in northern England, Stubbs conducted an intensive, two-year study of the anatomy of the horse. This knowledge was the foundation of his accomplishments as an equine painter.
Stubbs performed countless dissections, turned out scores of drawings and prepared an extensive text on the subject. These formed the basis for his important work The Anatomy of the Horse, published with the artist’s own engravings in 1766. The most definitive treatment of the topic up to that date, the book is still highly regarded for its accuracy and beauty. Three rare copies of The Anatomy of the Horse are on view in the Walters exhibition.
Settling in London in 1759 with his common-law wife and their infant son, Stubbs set out to use his anatomic expertise in portraying living horses for aristocratic owners. Stubbs launched his career at a time in 18th-century Britain when the rise of country houses, increased leisure time, the development of rural routines of sport, and improvements in horse breeding produced a great demand for sporting art.
Specifically, the nobility and landed gentry came to regard the ownership of fine horses as second only to the possession of land as a measure of social stature. As one critic of British art has observed, “After portraits of himself, his wife and children, the English patron of the 18th century liked best to have a picture of his horse.”
It was in this context that the rural elite came to Stubbs with commissions for paintings of their horses and sporting activities on their country estates or at racecourses. In response, Stubbs traveled widely to these rural fiefdoms, observing the rhythms of horsemanship, racing and hunting, and the settings in which all of this took place.
From the start, Stubbs’ inventive compositions combined his mastery of equine anatomy with a feel for design and astute landscaping strategies that set him apart from the older generation of horse painters, notably John Wootton (1686-1764) and James Seymour (1702-1752). These pioneers in the genre had created rather primitive, na