George Stubbs, Turf, with Jockey Up, at Newmarket (c. 1765), oil on canvas, 38″ x 49″; courtesy Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
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Gallery-goers interested in viewing the handful of paintings by George Stubbs (1724–1806) on loan from the Yale Center for British Art will have to engage in the museological equivalent of hunting and pecking. The eight canvases are snuggled almost imperceptibly within the Met’s collection of European painting and are surrounded by those of his countrymen, including Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence, Thomas Gainsborough, and, in a disappointingly sanguine mood, William Hogarth. As the Yale Center’s Louis I. Kahn building undergoes restoration, New Yorkers have been offered a sampling of an artist best known for paintings of horses. Given how large exhibitions can tax one’s attention, who’s to say the less-is-more approach is a bad thing? The encompassing overview of John Singer Sargent’s portraits, concurrently on view at the Met, all but exhausts one’s capability for pleasure: the hits just keep on coming. A smattering of pictures, on the other hand, allows for a degree of measure that encourages focus.
Of course, Sargent was a greater artist than Stubbs. Stubbs had nowhere near the American’s facility—few painters do—and distilling the quiddities of personality was less important than representational accuracy. Sargent deserves the gala treatment; Stubbs, not so much. Even on the slim evidence at the Met, the narrow range of Stubbs’s talents and interests is evident. A brittleness in execution—a lack of spatial pliability and compositional invention—can make him seem an inspired folk painter. Stubbs was, in fact, self-taught. An apprenticeship with the painter and engraver Hamlet Winstanley was short-lived, the younger artist bristling at the copying typical of art instruction at the time. Flesh interested him more than plaster, and Stubbs set into motion his own course of study, learning human anatomy at York County Hospital and, later, animal anatomy through the dissection of horses. The latter took place at his farmhouse outside of York, wherein Stubbs made drawings from artfully posed carcasses. Stubbs did not lack drive; certainly he wasn’t squeamish.
George Stubbs, Freeman, the Earl of Clarendon’s gamekeeper, with a dying doe and hound (1800), oil on canvas, 40″ x 50″;courtesy Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
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Stubbs’s devotion to the intricacies of equine form did not go unnoticed. The intensive accuracy of his studies caught the eye of patrons—Stubbs received his first commissions from aficionados of both horses and art—and would eventually lead to the publication of his 1866 treatise, The Anatomy of the Horse. Stubbs became sought after as a niche painter and achieved an enviable level of success, providing him the financial wherewithal to purchase a home in the exclusive London neighborhood of Marylebone. Though Stubbs would branch out to other genres, including historical dioramas, landscape, and depictions of more exotic fauna like that of the little known “kongouro,” the non-horse pictures were met with less acclaim. When a failed collaboration with the ceramicist Josiah Wedgewood left him in debt, Stubbs began taking on commissions to paint dogs. Patronage from the Prince of Wales eased his later years. At the time of his death, Stubbs was working on a suite of engravings whose title makes plain the peculiar nature of his fascinations: A comparative anatomical exposition of the structure of the human body with that of a tiger and a common fowl.
Oddly enough, and alas, horses are on short supply at the Met—only Turf, with Jockey Up, at Newmarket (ca. 1765) and Lustre, Held By a Groom (ca. 1762) feature Stubbs’s trademark animal. Elsewhere, we see hunting dogs, a doe, a mound of dead birds, and, in Two Gentlemen Shooting (ca. 1769), a partridge balletically stilled in mid-air having just been pelted with buckshot. Oh, yes, and humans: not only the aforementioned hunters, jockey, and groom, but Freeman, the Earl of Clarendon’s gamekeeper, who is pictured in a starkly dramatic composition, holding off a dog from an injured deer. The Met informs us that the gamekeeper will shortly administer the “coup de grâce,” thereby delivering the wounded animal from its suffering. Well, maybe. There’s enough ambiguity in the man’s gaze to give one pause: Freeman’s gesture is more conciliatory than not and his visage distinctly Solomonic. The neoclassical triangulation of the figures, if not the moody landscape that serves as their backdrop, undergirds the supposition. As moral theater, Freeman, the Earl of Clarendon’s gamekeeper, with a dying doe and hound (1800) has more gravitas than one might initially think.
Newmarket Heath, with a Rubbing Down House (ca. 1765), oil on canvas, 12″ x 16″; courtesy Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
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Notwithstanding the stern Mr. Freeman, Stubbs’s human figures are either doughy and generic—his gentleman hunters are stock types and nothing more—or, as in the regal Turf, with Jockey Up, at Newmarket (ca. 1765), so much a part of the animal that to make a distinction between the two is pointless. In delineating animal forms, Stubbs employed an analytical approach that emphasized contour, thereby bringing a sharp and sinewy angularity to forms. There is, for example, an almost Egyptian sense of pictorial codification to the two dogs seen in Two Gentlemen Going a Shooting (1768). Less impressive is the patchwork nature of Stubbs’s compositions; figures are decals stuck on to a surrounding rather than being integral components of it. The most unified picture of the bunch is Newmarket Heath, with a Rubbing Down House (ca. 1765), in which figures of any sort are absent. The brutalist authority of the title structure is quelled by a gentle—dare one say “tender”?—suffusion of afternoon light. Stubbs never let the painting leave the studio, sensing, perhaps, that he’d achieved something closer to poetry than mere hard-won verisimilitude. For that one grace note alone, the Met’s jewel-box exhibition of Stubbs’s work is worth a visit.
© 2015 Mario Naves
This review originally appeared in the October 2015 edition of The New Criterion.