Romantic

George Stubbs

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    (c. 1762) by George Stubbs. The National Gallery (London, UK).

Whistlejacket (c. 1762) by George Stubbs. The National Gallery (London, UK).

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.

   Dürer’s Rhinoceros  (1515) by Albrecht Dürer.  (There are copies of this woodcut in museums around the world.)

Dürer’s Rhinoceros (1515) by Albrecht Dürer. (There are copies of this woodcut in museums around the world.)

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:

     The Kongouro from New Holland         (1772) by George Stubbs. National Maritime Museum (Greenwich, UK). 

The Kongouro from New Holland (1772) by George Stubbs. National Maritime Museum (Greenwich, UK). 

Okay, once more, with feeling:

   A Lion Attacking a Horse    (1770)       by George Stubbs. Yale Center for British Art (New Haven, CT).

A Lion Attacking a Horse (1770) by George Stubbs. Yale Center for British Art (New Haven, CT).

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!

John Constable

A British Romantic painter, Constable painted many scenes of the Suffolk countryside. A mill-owner's son, he especially loved to paint local waterways. For Constable, very much unlike the British painters who came before him, the landscape was not the mere background of the painting; it was the star of the show. Painters at the Royal Academy looked down on landscapes for generations, even if there was demand for them, as wealthy Brits were buying up landscapes by Salvator Rosa, Karel Dujardin, Nicholas Poussin and Claude Lorrain on their Grand Tours of Continental Europe. But Constable offered something different: a uniquely British, not Italianate, landscape. 

So how do you spot a Constable? Watch out for paintings at eye-level perspective, with some combination of a river in the foreground, often being forded by oxen or horses, with Salisbury Cathedral in the background. (Rainbows are optional.) This painting happens to have all those things in one neat package!

   Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows  (1831) by John Constable. National Museum Wales (Cardiff, UK).

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831) by John Constable. National Museum Wales (Cardiff, UK).

This painting happens to have all those things in one neat package!

Also look for small human figures, if any at all, in his paintings. He is well-known for his watercolors as well as his oils. He also employed a palette knife in his later career on snow and clouds, giving his landscapes a less mannered feel, putting him on the cutting edge of art (palette knife, cutting edge - get it?!). Have a gander:

   Seascape Study with Rain Cloud  ( Rainstorm over the Sea)  (1824-1828) by John Constable. Royal Academy of Arts (London, UK)

Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea) (1824-1828) by John Constable. Royal Academy of Arts (London, UK)

In paintings such as Seascape Study, Constable shifted from Gainsboroughesque, idyllic views of the Suffolk countryside to proto-Impressionist scenes of sea and sky, stepping away from nostalgia for a rural England that was rapidly disappearing in the Industrial Age. He was, just the same, moving away from the centuries-long influence of Dutch Golden Age landscapes into something entirely new - the seeds of modern art. The sudden transition may have found its root in Constable's rivalry with J. M. W. Turner, the master of atmosphere. But that's for another time!