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George Stubbs in New York

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Stubbs gave animals “the beauty, strength, and dignity ordinarily reserved for the human figure” (Frick catalogue). Here he breaks with convention, painting the horse Whistlejacket against a plain background so nature’s beauty blazes plainly. National Gallery, London

GEORGE STUBBS (1724–1806): A CELEBRATION at the Frick Collection in New York shows some of his most original and beautiful contributions to the tradition of British eighteenth-century painting. The exhibition, which just opened, conveys his artistry, which was won in a lonely Lancashire farmhouse where he spent 18 months dissecting the large bodies of horses and drafting anatomical drawings.

Out of the blood and sinews of his dissections and drawings a rare quality became visible in his paintings. This was not their beauty (though they were beautiful). It was their extraordinarily accurate physical description of animals moving and at rest. The horse owner who was famously willing to pay fifty guineas for a painting of his horse, but thought ten guineas too much for a painting of his wife, wanted that quality. Stubbs had a lucrative career.

Stubbs also creates something I sensed when I first went riding above the Brandywine and found myself on an older horse who loved to charge across green grass and (much to my surprise) take a fence.

Stubbs – I don’t think it’s my imagination – conveys the mystery and freedom of a horse.

Stubbs observed tigers, giraffes, monkeys, and rhinoceroses in private menageries and painted them, too. His terrifying series of a lion stalking and devouring a horse (now in the Tate) became well known through engravings.

He continued to paint portraits of people, and in the 1780s painted the pastoral series called Haymakers and Reapers. He was active into his 80s, working on anatomical drawings of men, tigers, and birds, but by the time he died his reputation had gone into eclipse. His work remained uncelebrated and unknown for 150 years. In the 1950s several exhibitions finally revealed him as an outstanding British painter and "a dedicated and solitary master" (Encylopaedia Britannica).

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