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George Stubbs
Biography



It's no secret amongst portrait painters that the generic term "portrait" is, by no means, limited to depictions of people. I've done portraits of houses, cars, boats, and quite a number of different types of animals, the most prevalent being dogs and cats. But I've also found occasions to paint a bull, a chicken, a rabbit, and pet birds. However, by far the most demanding animal portrait is that of the equine variety. Clients for this type of portrait are sometimes more demanding of verisimilitude than are those of the human face and figure. And the study of the horse, in that it is basically a "nude" figure, and a much larger and anatomically more complex being than their human masters, has often occupied the full-time study and output of those artists who share a love for these graceful beasts. Perhaps the first of these was the English artist, George Stubbs.

George Stubbs was born in 1724. He was not only a painter of horses, but like Leonardo and the human figure, he was also a scientist studying their anatomy as no man had ever done before. Engravings were made from his skeletal and muscular drawings that were highly prized by veterinarians of his day. This led to the publication in 1766 of his voluminous discourse The Anatomy of the Horse which studied the animal from the inside out. It is still respected today. Though he read endlessly on the subject from his isolated farmhouse, his real knowledge came from firsthand studies. It's said he could lug a dead horse upstairs to his dissecting room single-handedly. With the help of a female assistant, variously reported to be his niece or aunt (but more likely his mistress), he often spent weeks studying and drawing his deceased subjects. Whoever she was, she must have had a strong stomach, given the odiferous nature of the undertaking.

The publication of his book established for the artist/scientist an international reputation well above that of any other horse painter of his time. Thus, when he wasn't busy cutting them up, he was never short of commissions allowing him to glorify their stately beauty in paint. He believed man to be at his best around these animals and though his human figures never rose to the level of his equine efforts, they nonetheless benefited from the presence of their beloved animals in his paintings. Without a doubt, his best effort was a never-completed frieze entitled "Brood Mares and Foals" painted in 1762. In it he composed a meticulous arrangement of mares and their young which seems to flow across the canvas with an effortless grace appropriate to his subject. The paintings seems all the more attractive to our eyes because of the fact he never had time to add a background. This allows our undistracted eyes to roam freely over his magnificent specimens of horseflesh.

contributed by Lane, Jim


24 October 1998
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