Horse and Dog Portraits From a British Eccentric

If it were the custom to divide painters, as we do authors, into poets and writers of prose, then we should have to characterize the English painter George Stubbs (1724-1806), whose work is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn., as one of the most prosaic artists of his time. With the other luminaries of English painting in the 18th and 19th centuries-Hogarth, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Lawrence, Constable and Turner-Stubbs had nothing in common. Neither the foibles of the English character nor the worthies of English history nor the lyric grandeur of the English countryside were of commanding interest to him. In the art of the old masters he likewise found little to fire his imagination. When, at the age of 30, he made his obligatory journey to Rome, it was only to confirm his conviction that “nature is superior to art.”

Stubbs’ interest in nature was anything but comprehensive, however. It was in fact largely confined to the animal kingdom. His forte was anatomical accuracy, and for its unembellished depiction he found horses and certain other animals more sympathetic objects of interest than human society. (Happily for him, the English upper classes provided a lively market for such pictures.) What few traces of the human species are to be found in Stubbs’ paintings of horses are entirely ancillary to their equine subjects, upon which he lavished not only a finical scientific interest but an almost preternatural devotion. In the scale of affections Stubbs brought to his art, horses came first, dogs ran a close second, while the human presence registered, where it registered at all, as a very distant third.

Landscape, though obviously unavoidable for a painter of horses, also failed to elicit anything like a poetical response from Stubbs. None of this can be attributed to a lack of competence on Stubbs’ part, for he was masterly at rendering the subjects that engaged his devotion; but it does suggest a lack of feeling for anything else. Like the human figure, the landscape in Stubbs’ painting is always correct, but it is stiffly rendered according to the conventions of his day. It is rarely integrated into a compelling composition. Pictorially, landscape thus remains a somewhat perfunctory, background supplement to the artist’s principal interest.

What has to be understood about Stubbs’ best horse paintings, however, is that they are not so much genre scenes or even sporting pictures as they are specific portraits of greatly admired creatures. Horses were not a generic subject for Stubbs. He responded to their individuality and their special beauty-even, it might be said, to their nobility-with an intensity of concentration that is comparable to what other artists brought to the portrayal of extraordinary men and women. That was at once the triumph and the limitation of his artistic powers.

On the rare occasions when Stubbs attempted to enlarge the scope of his art by attempting something more dramatic-as he did, for example, in the painting called A Lion Attacking a Horse (circa 1762)-the result inevitably invites comparisons with talents far greater than his, and these too are reminders of his limitations. For compared with the horse paintings of Delacroix or even the young GĂ©ricault (who was dead at the age of 33), Stubbs’ few action pictures are seen to lack the epic quality of these French masters. What for them inspired flights of pictorial imagination, for Stubbs remained episodes of natural history-anatomically correct, to be sure, but lacking a heroic dimension.

Oddly enough, it was only in his paintings of dogs, which are also portraits, that Stubbs was able to bring something like a note of personal intimacy into his art. In a wonderful painting of a white poodle, for example, even the quality of Stubbs’ brushwork is distinctly more vivacious than anything to be seen in the horse paintings. When dogs were his subjects, Stubbs might even be suspected of harboring a sense of humor. Be that as it may, it is only in the gallery devoted to the dog portraits at the Yale Center that you are likely to see visitors to the Stubbs exhibition responding with a look of affectionate amusement.

Does this suggest, perhaps, that an interest in equine subjects as keen and as knowledgeable as Stubbs’ might be a prerequisite to a proper, or at least an enthusiastic, appreciation of his achievement? Probably. It is certainly no coincidence that the man largely responsible for the revival of interest in Stubbs in this century-the late Paul Mellon, who died this year at the age of 91-was himself, among much else, a devoted horseman and breeder of horses. Mellon also had a very keen interest in English painting, and as a result of that interest he founded the Yale Center in 1977. He had acquired his first Stubbs painting, Pumpkin With a Stable Lad (1774), in 1936, and, with the help of the English art historian Basil Taylor, he went on to acquire more than 30 pictures by the artist, 18 of which are now in the collection of the Yale Center, as well as rare examples of Stubbs’ anatomical drawings of horses and other fauna. The current exhibition, which is called George Stubbs in the Collection of Paul Mellon: A Memorial Exhibition , is the first that gives the public a complete look at this collection.

Given the occasion, it was inevitable that the Yale Center would want to acclaim Stubbs as “the most original and remarkable British artist of his age.” If the exhibition doesn’t quite support that claim, it is nonetheless a rare opportunity to acquaint ourselves with an oeuvre rarely seen elsewhere. It remains on view through Sept. 5, and admission is free.