Horse Power

John Haber
in New York City

George Stubbs

Now, repeat after me: George Stubbs did not just paint horses.

Scholars of the British artist keep insisting, and so does the Frick. "George Stubbs: A Celebration" includes a monkey, an ox, lions, no shortage of foxhounds, and a bull moose. In two signature works, both of Haymakers, men and women together tend to a storybook English landscape. Already in the eighteenth century, Stubbs created an idyll of the nation's past.

All well and good, but one problem. Not to pigeonhole him as a horse painter is an insult to horses everywhere. No one else studied them so intently and gave them so much life. I do not care what this does for the artist's stature. Horses stand at the center of his art, because they embody not just a cultural heritage, but what it means to be human. George Stubbs's Haymakers (Tate, 1785)

Horse sense

Art historians have been making their case for some time. Stubbs fell out of fashion during Romanticism, which saw at best a polite genre painter. Fifty years ago, a retrospective announced his reemergence. In the 1980s he returned to the Tate in London on a still larger scale, as a skilled portraitist and landscape artist. Born in 1724, Stubbs in fact began as a portrait painter and a lecturer on human anatomy. He had his due pilgrimage to Italy, then plied his trade quietly in Liverpool until publication of The Anatomy of the Horse brought him fame in 1766.

Even at a mere seventeen works, the Frick's show feels ample and leisurely. Stubbs worked on a larger scale than one may recall, and he also experimented with enamel on metal. He adapts the technique to the size of easel painting, while keeping the intensity of a miniature. Those tighter compositions crowd out the background, and his colors deepen. In oil on canvas, too, a pair of lions nestles beneath a tree and darker skies. They resemble Edward Hicks's Peaceable Kingdom or something by Henri Rousseau, part of his appeal to modern eyes.

The horses themselves show Stubbs's larger reach. His study of anatomy confirms the self-taught artist's ambition as an academic painter. Perhaps he was showing good horse sense and taking his time. The show begins with the artist in his forties. For the history books, the late 1760s count as his early work.

As subject, too, the horses show Stubbs's claims to mainstream British art. Many pose with their owners, dressed simply but impeccably for the races or the hunt. The men conform to the same ideals of modesty and property as in the outdoor portraits by Thomas Gainsborough or Joshua Reynolds. Whether on horseback or walking, they have full command. As the central point of these scenes, the horse stands for the landed estate as a whole. It appears as a spacious enclosure, framed by trees behind, with just a hint, perhaps, of a distant steeple.

The enclosure has the mellow tones of golden age. Stubbs favors a single layer of paint with minimal impasto, one reason that his reputation fell and rose again with Modernism. It has much in common with the alla prima technique of Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Bruegel in his Wedding Dance. The late Haymakers translate Bruegel's harvest, with its long horizon, into the two dimensions of a frieze. Men in shirtsleeves and women in hats and country dresses move slowly across the picture plane, at times like successive frames in a single stop-action photograph. Of course, they dress too elegantly for real laborers and too modestly for the court of France.

That golden enclosure could stand for England, and it explains England's insistence on recovering Stubbs for posterity. The exhibition originated at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and Tate Britain. It celebrates the two hundredth anniversary of Stubbs's death. It also celebrates a broad but aristocratic ideal. As in Shakespeare's Henry V, anyone who stood together that day became nobility.

A different color

The horses may embody that enclosure, but they live in another world entirely—one much closer to today's. Where the people and landscape look flat, horses alone have the bones and musculature that Stubbs prized. Where the men have the blank faces of folk art, they have personality. Their coats have a richness denied to the pale, glowing yellows and greens of early fall. One can truly call them a horse of a different color.

They walk ahead of the men who nominally lead them. They alone cast real shadow, in well-defined diagonals on the ground. Tellingly, the one landscape with significant depth depicts stalls for horses. They can have passions and their own community. They can almost run wild.

In a river landscape, two mares nurse their young openly, while a white horse leans over them all. That horse also raises a powerful rear leg, and the heads of the three adults approach one another. They lack only the novelist eloquent enough to tell their story. In contrast, even when people hint at illicit romance, they make cold tabloid copy.

In one version of Haymakers, a man and woman at the far left face one another, so that the second figure turns his back on the rest. He looks anxiously over his shoulder, and another man on horseback may be observing them with disapproval. Even in a possible love affair, however, the Brits must respect decorum. A huge bale of hay keeps the couple safely apart. The woman stands as stiffly as humanly possible.

In Stubbs's most famous images, a lion frightens a horse or latches onto him. The horse gets the worse of the encounter but the better of the deal. It recoils with a majestic savagery that makes the lion seem tame by comparison.

One can see images like this as Stubbs at his most progressive. They allow him a wider range of color, shadow, and paint handling. They look ahead to a more active engagement with a wilder nature—in other words, to Romanticism. As the curators note, the artist started dissecting horses just as Edmund Burke was publishing his "enquiry" into the beautiful and the sublime.

Horsing around

Like most ideal histories, this one has its gaps. Stubbs could not let a dark cloud billow into the Romantic void if he tried. His horses belong to a landowner, whereas the White Horse of John Constable belongs to a recognizable place, to hard human labor, and to a more active imagination. Stubbs still believes in art as both a mirror and an ideal.

Rather, the horses anticipate Romanticism in quite another way. Like the railroad tracks in a Hudson River School wilderness, they argue for a bridge between nature and culture. They exceed the idylls of the past by describing human inroads onto the wilderness.

The horses exist as both animals and products of acculturation. They take part in nature's struggle to survive, but only because anonymous natural forces threaten them. They have their place in a nobleman's estate, but with truer feelings of their own and a firmer place in the three dimensions of landscape.

All these relate to another species with one foot in nature and one in a self-created world. When Stubbs published on anatomy, he was giving horses the place in an artist's training long accorded humans. He is articulating a new understanding of human nature and society.

Stubbs chose horses bred by people for human uses—hunting animals and thoroughbreds—much like the hounds in other paintings. His other animals may sound closer to nature, but not by much. The Duke of Richmond had his first bull moose, and the monkey served as an exotic addition to a rich collection. Monkeys appear often in art as symbols of lasciviousness, a human failing, and the monkey here holds his round fruit like a child's toys. He is just horsing around. Even the lions, when not attacking a horse, emulate a human family.

With a departure from the golden age comes risk. Romanticism introduced all sorts of stories about what goes wrong when people dare to remake nature. The lure and fear of a deeper nature remained. Another contemporary of Stubbs recently at the Frick, Jean-Étienne Liotard, exemplified a new interest in Orientalism, and Stubbs's obsession has something in common with George Catlin's fascination with Native Americans. Modernism turned to the art of Africa and "Négritude," and debates over "the primitive" and its discords endure today. One can see why Stubbs gained new relevance over time, but one should grant him his modest place in a quieter past, too.

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"George Stubbs: A Celebration" ran through May 27, 2007, at The Frick Collection.


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