Now to those who know me, it will come as no surprise that I regard the artist George Stubbs as something of a god. I mean, how could I not?
But it isn’t just the fact that he painted horses that has me so worshipful. After all, lots of artists painted horses before he did, yet they don’t make me go all weak at the knees. Or not noticeably…no, I’d have to say, not at all.
But Stubbs. Holy wow. When you’re in a room with a Stubbs, you can’t fail but be overwhelmed by the mastery of the animal, the power and presence, the strength and beauty. To lift a line from John Donne about something quite different, “Nothing else is.”
Now Stubbs may have been painting to commission (so was Michelangelo…) and he may have been painting rich men’s toys, but what makes him and his work great is that he took that and did something wholly new, different and shocking with it.
Prior to Stubbs no one, not anyone, had painted horses as anything other than accessories. Not only were they anatomically inaccurate–usually their heads are way too small in proportion to their bodies, but also their legs wouldn’t support their bodies–the portraits in which they featured were always about the owners. They were a demonstration of man’s dominion over nature, or showing this rich man or that king as powerful…they were an essential element of the trappings of power, nobility, wealth and war. Look, you were meant to say, he can master that great beast–and that was a metaphor for a chap’s greatness above his peers.
But Stubbs changes all that. For him the horses are the main characters and the people are always lesser. The portrait of Dungannon, with a Sheep is about that horse–he’s featured with his friend, the sheep–because he had a nervous disposition and was a fighter, but they found that although they couldn’t put another horse with him for companionship, the sheep just calmed him right down.
Turf, with Jockey up, at Newmarket, doesn’t show the owner–and the jockey is more a type than someone you could recognise–it’s again all about the horse.
But the true shocker of Stubbs’ career is Whistlejacket, because Stubbs dared not only to paint the horse nearly lifesize, but also on a plain background so there is only Whistlejacket. It is the ultimate homage to the animal. There is nothing to distract away from the horse’s magnificence. And the plain background was the latest trend in 1762–being pioneered by Reynolds and soon to be one of Lawrence’s trademarks–but they were painting people. But Whistlejacket’s canvas itself is every bit as big as that of the huge portrait of Napoleon in his coronation robes sitting on the throne (Whistlejacket’s a lot prettier too) or Las Meninas by Velasquez–but this was for a horse.
Then there’s his series of the grey being attacked by the lion. No one, not anyone before Stubbs had even dreamed of getting inside a horse’s head enought to know what they were afraid of, to understand why they reacted to things as they do. He not only went inside that head, he came to understand it and then he painted it and painted it well. And that series of paintings was the beginning of the change in how we in the West have perceived equine behaviour, and how we have sought to work with it rather than master it.
Stubbs took the convention, he took the commissions, he studied the animals as painters had studied people before him–dissecting them, learning everything about the muscles and bones and sinews–and through his great work he made us see, really see, these magnificent creatures. He changed the way they were portrayed forever. He changed the way we perceived them forever. That’s great art.
Now, if only I could write novels the way Stubbs painted horses…