The British artist George Stubbs (1724-806) is known principally for his paintings of thoroughbred horses. It’s hard to imagine, but before the 1950s, he wouldn’t have been known for anything at all. Like Vermeer, he was forgotten after his death. George Stubbs was resurrected in the 1950s via a series of exhibitions in England. In the 1960s, collector Paul Mellon’s voracious appetite for his work furthered the cause.
Recently more attention has been paid to the entirety of Stubbs’ oeuvre. A major retrospective circulated in 2004-5, and now we have a small but choice selection of 17 smallish paintings at the Frick Collection. "George Stubbs (1724-1806): A Celebration" is a reduced version of an exhibition honoring the bicentenary of the artist’s death. The larger version already has been seen at the Walker Art Gallery, in the artist’s native Liverpool, and then at Tate Britain in London, where Stubbs spent much of his life. All the works are from English collections.
While the Yale Center for British Art has a great many paintings by Stubbs, many of them large, the more modest size of those at the Frick and the Frick’s intimate galleries allow for a closer inspection of the work of this now-cherished artist. Besides his closely observed paintings of horses, the show has examples of Stubbs’ paintings of exotic animals, domestic animals, lions attacking horses and genre scenes.
Thomas Smith, Huntsman of the Brocklesby Hounds, and His Father, Thomas Smith, Former Huntsman, with the Hound Wonder (1776) is a splendid description of two very distinct horses. But there’s more. The accurate rendering of a dog in a decidedly devoted yet heroic stance is detailed and as absorbing as that of the horses.
And then there are wonderful portraits of the two riders. The elder Smith is said to have warmed his hands in his pockets in exactly the way he’s depicted. The idea of the passing of the baton between the elder and younger Smith is clearly suggested with the younger enthusiastically leading the way and the elder being more contemplative. Stubbs spotlights his actors, human and animal, in a generic landscape which serves as a sensitively color-coordinated backdrop. It’s a marvelous and complex work.
Stubbs was a leather-worker’s son, and self-taught for the most part. Early on, Stubbs assisted a male midwife in makling a book of anatomical studies, which led to his fascination with the workings of bodies. He decided to let "Nature" be his guide. Not for Stubbs the feathery brushwork of Thomas Gainsborough.
Stubbs’s realistic depiction of animals was the result of close study and hard work, including dissections of horses that resulted in his book The Anatomy of the Horse, which got him noticed and established him as a painter of animals.
In his own time, Stubbs was paid handsomely by members of the nobility who were avid horse breeders. He sometimes painted a thoroughbred just as the horse was being retired for stud, as in his Molly Longlegs (1762). The horse’s tack appears to the lower right of the canvas.
Even those not involved with racing or hunting employed Stubbs because of his accuracy in depicting animals. One of the paintings at the Frick depicts -- of all things -- a young North American moose! The Duke of Richmond’s First Bull Moose (1770) came about as the result of several English noblemen importing and attempting to breed moose. While the experiment failed, we still have Stubbs’ remarkable picture to remind us of it.
The show at the Frick divides between paintings of animals and paintings with animals and people. But I think Stubbs isn’t so easily categorized. Stubbs, who started out doing portraits to earn a living, suggests different personalities even in dogs, as in the frieze-like grouping Five Hounds in a Landscape (1762). Even more poignant is A Couple of Foxhounds (1792), a late work in which the life-size pair of animals appears as an affectionate human-like twosome.
Stubbs tried to make his paintings more acceptable to the Royal Academy and its patrons as the institution matured and increased its power. Paintings of animals were considered the least noble subject for art by the Academy, while history paintings were valued the most with portraits and genre pieces in between. Stubbs attempted to move up a few notches in respectability with genre scenes but didn’t have much luck at the time. Today his companion pieces Haymakers and Reapers from 1785 are appreciated as among his most satisfying and carefully plotted pieces.
Unlike Stubbs’ earlier animal paintings with humans, this pair of paintings features both human actors and a ripple of human interaction that upstage the horses in them. In the Haymakers, the central woman anchors the picture like a disguised goddess, while the central woman and man-on-horseback in the Reapers seem to be flirting.
Stubbs was as much a scientist as artist. Besides his interest in anatomy, he experimented with different pigments and grounds for his paintings in an effort to insure that his colors would be permanent. His enamel-on-copper Horse Devoured by a Lion (1769) is one of his more violent and Romantic works. Thanks to a relationship with Josiah Wedgewood and much study by both, Stubbs produced fired enamels-on-Wedgewood earthenware, like his A Lion and Lioness (1778).
Known as a sober, hard-working fellow, Stubbs could still enjoy a joke. His The Lincolnshire Ox (1790) depicts the owner of a mammoth-sized prize-winning ox. The man, who won the creature in a cockfight, is shown with the ox and the cock itself. Each struts his stuff in a landscape setting that equates the three and undermines whatever pretensions the owner had.
Stubbs definitely means more than horses today, as this first-ever show devoted to the artist in New York makes clear. Researchers still have lots to discover about the works this versatile painter produced.
A booklet accompanies the show with a valuable essay by Alex Kidson, curator of British Art, Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, which organized the original show along with the Tate Britain. "George Stubbs (1724-1806): A Celebration" was coordinated at the Frick Collection by chief curator Colin B. Bailey and associate curator Denise Allen.
Whoever she is, this European female is certainly generous to share her drawings, spanning the 16th to the early 20th century, with the public. The Morgan Library, in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where the show appears when it leaves the Morgan, have reciprocated with a lovely, scholarly catalogue for the exhibition.
"Private Treasures" is especially rich in Italian works and French pieces from the 17th through 19th centuries. Agnolo Bronzino’s The Dead Christ (1529-35) in black chalk, which only appeared at auction in 2000, is a study for a Pietà -- exactly which one is still a matter of debate. The way the form is compressed within the edges of the sheet portrays an active submission to death rather than a collapse. The virile beauty of the figure is maintained even in this new state.
Federico Barocci of Urbino, a prolific draughtsman and early master of colored chalks, is equally compelling in his drawing of the Head of St. Francis (1574-76), a study for an altarpiece with extreme foreshortening that has the saint’s head tilted backward, looking up toward God. The restrained use of color and the stumping results in a thoroughly modern-looking work.
One of the sweetest French pieces is The Drawing Lesson (1777) by François-André Vincent, a pupil of Fragonard (who is also represented in the show). Vincent was to gravitate toward Neoclassicism, but this breezy lesson in love in completely Rococo. Vincent’s brush and ink depict a young boy instructing a young lady in drawing, but their linked arms, her defensive glance at the viewer’s intrusion, as well as his total absorption in her, indicate other kinds of lessons are going on.
Among the more recent works, two German artists stand out. Two sheets by Adolph Mendel are simply thrilling examples of this great and wildly productive draughtsman’s work. His Elderly Man Leaning Forward (1887) and his A Couple Looking at Painting (1893), both in pencil with stumping, exemplify the range of his touch and the suggestiveness of his every subject’s gestures.
Käthe Kollwitz’s Grieving Mother (1903) is one of three preparatory drawings for the print Mother and Dead Son. The figure in the drawing is so desperate, so tortured a creature that in the raw animal energy of its grief, it’s difficult to determine whether the mourner is male or female. Its emotional dissolution is complete.
"Private Treasures" is at the Morgan Library through April 8, 2007. The exhibition then travels to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where it goes on view from May 6, to September 16, 2007.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.