George Stubbs is no doubt the least-famous painter so far on Who Painted That, but he’s worth knowing about – firstly, because he’s a very fine painter, and secondly, because his work neatly combines elements of three painters we’ve discussed so far (Gainsborough, Reynolds and Lorrain). Stubbs was a British Romantic painter and engraver who is most famous for his portraits of animals. Let’s start with his crowning achievement:
Whistlejacket is a life-size or just under life-size portrait of the Marquess of Rockingham’s racehorse. It’s a seriously big painting, and it’s arguably the most eye-catching piece in a room of the National Gallery (room 34) that includes J. M. W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, and John Constable’s The Hay Wain. This painting is every bit the Grand Manner portrait of a Gainsborough – but of a horse! Stubbs’ Romantic rendering of the animal gives it personality and soul, stopping just shy of anthropomorphic portrait. (Stubbs, like many great artists, died broke, but I have to imagine that today he would have at least made a killing illustrating children’s books.) Notice that there is no background here but a solid color. Horses were so long relegated to the background in paintings – or, at best, in the case of a royal equestrian portrait, a Hollywood extra. Stubbs is finally giving the horse its due; making it the star of the show.
Stubbs was an expert draftsman who did dissections of dead horses to better understand their physiology. In a way, he is improving upon the pseudo-exact animal studies of, say, da Vinci and Dürer, and combining it with the portraiture of Gainsborough and Reynolds.
But wait, there’s more! Stubbs often situated his animals in idealized landscapes. So for a moment, close your eyes and imagine a uniquely British Gainsborough portrait of an animal combined with an ideal Lorrain landscape. Do you have it in your mind? Okay, now take a gander at this painting:
Okay, once more, with feeling:
So, in summary, if you see a Romantic portrait of an animal (especially a lion or a horse – or a lion attacking a horse!) painted with simultaneously exacting detail and a borderline anthropomorphic quality (especially the eyes!) in a Lorrain-like ideal landscape, odds are, you are standing in front of a George Stubbs!