George Stubbs: More Than Horses 


This spring, the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, displayed the first comprehensive survey in the United States of the work of George Stubbs. A self-taught painter, Stubbs (1724-1806) devoted his life to painting animals with consummate skill and remarkable virtuosity. He suffered financial hardship; his twilight years were spent in near penury, yet his faith in his work remained undiminished. By the best American standards, Stubbs must be considered a workaholic. But nothing in his art is rushed, haphazard, or unfinished. His paintings convey the sheer delight of immediacy. At once we are inside these splendid paintings. Stubbs’s animals are a celebration of life itself.

Organized by the Tate Gallery, London, and sponsored by United Technologies Corporation, the recent exhibition could hardly have been held in a more fitting location. The Yale Center for British Art, one of the last commissions executed by the great architect Louis I. Kahn, is Spartan but brilliant in conception. Sunlight pours in from an overhead skylight. Plate glass windows are set within poured concrete walls. The interior paneling is white oak; walls are linen-covered; and floors are carpeted with natural wool and bordered by strips of travertine marble. The central court can be viewed from all four floors. The design hints at interiors of English country houses.   The   Center   contains an al-most encyclopedic survey of Britain’s pictorial arts from Elizabethan times to the mid-19th century: 1,200 paintings, 10,000 drawings, 20,000 prints, 20,000 rare books, and some sculpture, all collected over the past 50 years by Paul Mellon. Other than a small plaque with Mr. Mellon’s name in the entrance court and his portrait in the library, there is no further evidence of the extraordinary munificence of this man.

Simply but elegantly displayed, the Stubbs exhibition presented his oeuvre in 10 coherent groupings. The anatomy of the horse, which occupied the first phase of his career, is represented mostly in drawings. Next came the Newmarket series of paintings, of stallions   and   grooms.   Obviously, by the 1760’s, Stubbs had achieved his immediate goal to be an exemplary painter.

The third section at the Yale Center focused on more paintings with grooms, perhaps the best being Lord Governor’s Arabian with a Groom. Stubbs collaborated with Josiah Wedgewood, and the results on display at Yale are impressive. The fourth grouping depicted riderless horses, as well as dogs, in landscapes.  If there was a climax, it came with four paintings hung near each other: leopards al play; the gorgeous and  large  painting of two Indians with a stag and a cheetah; a zebra, by far one of the greatest  of all animal paintings; and a monkey. For some, this was the Jerusalem of the Stubbs exhibition. The exhibition catalogue informs viewers that the real­ life cheetah was brought from India. After George III sent the animal to his brother, the Duke of Cumberland and Ranger of Windsor Forest, all wished to see the cheetah hunt a stag. Appropriate nets were placed to create an arena, but the stag won three times and the cheetah dashed off into the forest. Poor George fared no better with his cheetah than he did with his American colonies.

The sixth area of the exhibition featured bucolic pictures, some with hunters shooting game birds. In the seventh section there were paintings of dogs, including the superb Ringwood, a Brocklesby Foxhound. Whatever Stubbs painted, he brought a sensitive understanding to his subject. In the next segment of the Stubbs show were portraits of horses and riders. A substantial portion of this grouping was devoted to Comparative Anatomy. No one reaching the ninth area of the show can accept the one-sided impression of Stubbs as merely a painter of horses. The drawings and engravings displayed included some of his dramatic studies for famous paintings, particularly the horse and lion series. Stubbs’s work is a testimony to his enormous curiosity, as well as his first­ rate draftsmanship-human beings, tigers, and common foals all received his attention.

In the tenth and last section of the Stubbs exhibition were paintings of England’s upper classes, with all their pomp and circumstance. Two hand­ some paintings were loaned by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II: Soldiers of the 10th Light Dragoon, and Laetitia, Lady Lade. The elegance of the subjects and Stubbs’s astounding artistry are both in sharp contrast with the painter’s reduced circumstances in his last years. We may perhaps detect in the darkness of Gamekeeper with a Dying Doe a deep introspection. And the exhibition concludes with his last works where he returns, in a sense, to his origins-agrarian scenes with farmers toiling. Reading too much into paintings and works of art is perilous, but I believe the calm of these late pictures attests to a peace Stubbs had achieved within himself.

During his life, Stubbs received little recognition. The rising appreciation for his work may be traced back through published sale records of Stubbs’s work. In the l 750’s, a Stubbs horse fetched 100 guineas. In 1812 (six years following his death), a horse painting brought a mere 5 guineas. By the 1970’s, though, the Stubbs market had turned around. A star feature in the present exhibition at Yale was Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians, from the Manchester City Art Gallery in England, which acquired it in 1970 for 220,000 pounds, a record at that time. Five years ago Christie’s in London auctioned Tristram Shandy by Stubbs for $669,000. According to an article published in Connoisseur, a leading arts magazine, “the rise has been 70 percent since 1975 overall,” in the prices of paintings by Stubbs, “and the trend is up.”

For those who missed this exhibition, two large works by Stubbs, Horse Attacked by a Lion and Lion Attacking a Stag, hang permanently in the Library Court of the Yale Center for British Art. The catalogue, written by Judy Egerton, an Assistant Keeper of the British Collection at the Tate Gallery, contains 248 pages, with 218 illustrations (182 of them in color) and is available from the Museum Shop (Yale Center for British Art, Box 2120 Yale Station, New Haven, CT 06520;

$2 5. 00 softbound; $45. 00 hard­ bound).

The information on Stubbs’s private life is scarce. Modems accustomed to being shocked by artists’ behavior will be more puzzled than scandalized by Stubbs’s personal life: he had a common-law wife, Mary Spenser, for 50 years, by whom he had two sons. In her will, interestingly enough, Mary Spenser cited herself “a spinster.” Given the published material now available on Stubbs, we may now sup­ pose that the Stubbs household lived the life of a Thomas Hardy story. Yet Stubbs seldom expressed any personal anguish through his art. On the contrary, his paintings, drawings, enamel plaques, and engravings orchestrate an image of a man determined to work. Not the least bit autobiographical, his work reveals an utterly curious man whose first studies of the horse led him to undertake actual dissections. These carefully analytic drawings of the anatomy of a horse are a typical product of the Enlightenment.

Still, Stubbs is unique, owing little to old masters or to accepted conventions. At the same time, his art is permeated with the England of the 18th century. It is rather odd that while he seldom maneuvered socially to advance his career, his work is a reflection of Britain’s structured society. Far from the satiric moralism of Hogarth, his contemporary, Stubbs was a pragmatist, although he never lost sight of the differences between the patrician and the plebian characters in his paintings. Even so, the humble jockeys are depicted with immense understanding, their love for the stallions matching that of their grooms.

In retrospect, Stubbs clearly de­serves his belated place with his celebrated contemporaries, Reynolds and Gainsborough. Indeed, his best work may be ranked with that of Velazquez and