George Stubbs’ Noble Creatures

English painter George Stubbs made his name with animal portraits that revealed the individual dignity of their subjects
By Martin Myrone, March 2021
George Stubbs Brown and White Norfolk or Water Spaniel, 1778 Oil on canvas 31.75 x 38.25 inches Yale Center of British Art; Paul Mellon Collection

George Stubbs “Brown and White Norfolk or Water Spaniel”, 1778 Oil on canvas 31.75 x 38.25 inches Yale Center of British Art; Paul Mellon Collection

George Stubbs Spanish Pointer, 1776 Oil on canvas 23.62 x 27.26 inches Neue Pinakothek, Munich

George Stubbs “Spanish Pointer”, 1776 Oil on canvas 23.62 x 27.26 inches Neue Pinakothek, Munich

George Stubbs Black and White Spaniel Following a Scent, 1793 Oil on canvas 25 x 30 inches Virginia Museum of Fine Art

George Stubbs “Black and White Spaniel Following a Scent”, 1793 Oil on canvas 25 x 30 inches Virginia Museum of Fine Art

George Stubbs A Bay Hunter with Two Spaniels, 1777 Oil on canvas 27 x 23.26 inches Private Collection

George Stubbs “A Bay Hunter with Two Spaniels”, 1777 Oil on canvas 27 x 23.26 inches Private Collection

George Stubbs Hound Coursing a Stag, 1762 Oil on canvas 39.375 x 49.5 inches Philadelphia Museum of Art

George Stubbs “Hound Coursing a Stag”, 1762 Oil on canvas 39.375 x 49.5 inches Philadelphia Museum of Art

George Stubbs A Liver and White King Charles Spaniel in a Wooded Landscape, 1776 Oil on canvas 23.46 x 27.48 inches

George Stubbs “A Liver and White King Charles Spaniel in a Wooded Landscape”, 1776 Oil on canvas 23.46 x 27.48 inches

The love affair between the English and their dogs is one of the most well-worn of clichés, conjuring ideas of sentimentality, country living and —with reference to the issue of breeding and bloodlines—perhaps of a kind of class-consciousness and snobbishness which have traditionally been counted as national characteristics. Like all clichés, the relevance and truthfulness of these associations may be questionable, but the peculiar affection of the English upper classes for their animals was an assumption of many commentators in the 18th century and has a special relevance for the history of the visual arts.

Many critics thought that it was the preoccupation of the wealthy with their homes, families and animals which had inhibited the progress of the arts in Britain. Instead of commissioning high-minded scenes based on classical literature or myth, English aristocrats bought only portraits of themselves and their possessions. The pictures of George Stubbs (1724–1806)—the most successful animal painter of the later 18th century and widely accepted as one of the greatest figures in the history of art—may tell us, then, not only about the animals he represented, but also about the values and expectations of the culture he inhabited.

Stubbs’ career does not fit the usual pattern associated with the “great artist.” His early life was peripatetic and unfocussed. He was born in the port of Liverpool in 1724, the son of a currier, or leather-dresser—“a black greasy business” that “requires no other abilities… besides strength,” according to a contemporary source. In a period of expansion fueled (as its more liberal-minded denizens were uncomfortably aware) by the transatlantic slave trade, Liverpool was only just beginning to develop a cultural life. His family business offered little material support, and less still in the way of the social status and connections that could lead a young man into the profession of artist. Instead, we find the young Stubbs wandering the cities of the north of England—Hull, Leeds and York, as well as Liverpool, picking up work painting portraits for the local gentry, producing medical illustrations and even studying and teaching anatomy at the hospital in York. Neither art nor medicine was organized on a very formal basis at this time, and the rare skills of visual observation and anatomical understanding that were important in both realms made them much closer than we might expect today.

Norfolk Water Dog or Poodle in a Punt, 1778
Oil on canvas
50 x 40 inches
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Paul Mellon Collection

In 1754, Stubbs appears to have somehow obtained the financial backing necessary to go to Rome to study art, the conventional way to become noticed by elite art patrons. But even after the trip, he had little name as a painter, and no foothold in the circles of London patrons who could bring him fame and fortune. The great turning point came in 1756–1758, when he secreted himself away in an isolated rural barn and undertook an extraordinary series of horse dissections. This was an entirely new venture; traditionally, illustrations of horse anatomy were based on models dating back to the 16th century rather than on fresh observations.

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These designs, eventually published as The Anatomy of the Horse (1766), were a hugely risky undertaking, both financially and physically. Without effective disinfectants, anatomy was a terribly dangerous business in the 18th century; many surgeons and veterinarians fell ill, and some even died. But it was a gamble that paid off. The paintings of hunts and racehorses that Stubbs produced for the well-placed patrons who now began to employ him —the Duke of Richmond, Lord Grosvenor and the Marquis of Rockingham among them—were artistically ambitious and materially rewarding. No previous English artist had been able to bring to bear such an exacting understanding of animal anatomy. Given additional exposure through the newly instituted annual exhibitions of contemporary art (first arranged in London in the 1760s), these pictures helped make a considerable name for Stubbs.

Five Hounds in a Landscape (c.1760; private collection) was one of the canvases painted for Rockingham. Carefully arranged in slightly variant postures, the bodies of the three dogs and two bitches create a set of rhyming and interconnecting forms which leads our eye across the canvas and invites us to look at, and admire, the animals’ fine bodies. Contemporaries would have connected this sort of composition with the frieze-like arrangements seen in ancient Roman sculptures—noble source materials usually used for high-minded scenes of human action rather than for the representation of animals.

From the 1770s, his dog portraits grew in size and grandeur, with his paintings of individual spaniels and foxhounds, and the frankly rather odd, though still impressive, portrait of a poodle in a punt (1778; Mellon Collection). Pair of Foxhounds (1792; Tate, London) shows a bitch and a dog probably from the famously well-bred pack at Brocklesby, Lincolnshire. The two animals dominate the picture’s space, arranged in profile to emphasise their outlines and the symmetry between them, in a composition that is complicated in a visually interesting way where their bodies overlap. These are, in the fullest sense, portraits, and lend the “sitters” as much individual dignity as you might expect to find in a human image.

The anatomical precision, compositional grandeur and monumentality of Stubbs’ paintings helped mark out his work in the increasingly competitive art market of the late 18th century. As Britain’s economic wealth and political influence increased over these years, there was a growing effort among various social sectors to establish a cultural scene to match. Gentlemen and professionals, entrepreneurs, artists and patrons competed to take the lead, aligning themselves with the values of intellectual clarity and moral certainty that we label “Enlightenment.”

Stubbs’ paintings were calculated to embody the enlightened cultural values of this class of patrons while playing to their established concern with traditional country sports and dog breeding.

The formal grandeur and clinical qualities of his art lent an air of dignity to such productions, absolving them (in principle at least) from the criticisms that were increasingly directed at the rather dissolute world of country sports. In this dignified pictorial form, Stubbs’ dogs are a testament to the potential for progress and improvement that was so much a concern in other fields—in agriculture, industry and trade, and in social manners as well.

Stubbs’ dog paintings can be considered as a kind of balancing act wherein the artist attempted to combine a scientific approach to anatomy, artful compositions and an emphasis on the craft of painting in a way that could match the concerns of a generation of well-off patrons who wanted both to celebrate their traditional attachment to country rituals and the modernity of their tastes. However, after an initial period of acclaim in the 1760s and 1770s, his work came under greater criticism. His efforts to branch out into human portraiture and the painting of rural scenes were not generally well received. His rather clinical, highly finished painting manner began to look outdated compared to the more obviously emotional and expressive manners of the paintings that were becoming fashionable. His art proclaims the powers of observation in both science and art; the paintings of a younger generation were much more concerned with imagination and creativity. The broader brushwork apparent in some of the works produced at the end of his life may be a response to these changes, but failed to convince. Meanwhile, the aristocratic sporting enthusiasts who provided his greatest support became increasingly embattled and marginalized as the cultural values of the urban middle classes took a greater hold over the social world.

Stubbs’ last great project was an extended series of drawings of dissected tigers, chickens and humans, “shewing,” according to the biographical notes left by his friend, Ozias Humphry,“ the analogy between the Human frame, the Quadruped and the fowl, giving also an accurate description of the bones, cartilages, muscles, fascias, ligaments (which he intended to have carried on to the vegetable world).” Given the scope of this grand project, Stubbs would presumably have undertaken dog anatomies, though none survived. He died in July 1806 without seeing this “Comparative Anatomy” published in full. Stubbs was a professional artist for some 60 years; still, at his death, he appears to have been substantially in debt.

Portrait of Baron De Robeck Riding a Bay Hunter
oil on canvas, in a British 'Marratta' carved and gilded frame
101.5 by 127 cm., 40 by 50 in.

The “Comparative Anatomy” should have been Stubbs’ great, final monument, but the publication of the prints reproducing these drawings went almost entirely unnoticed. The worlds of art and science that these designs sought to combine were pulling apart as scientists and artists defined themselves as distinct professions with separate formal qualifications and values. The fate of Stubbs’ animal art registers not just the decline in his personal fortunes, but the passing of a moment when the concerns of self-consciously enlightened patrons and the ambitions of a most unusual painter could be joined up to produce an enduringly powerful image of the animal world. As visually commanding and emotionally engaging as they can appear now, Stubbs’ dog paintings also bear witness to a set of values which have been lost to us, values balanced between tradition and modernity, scientific observation and the aesthetic.

Artwork: George Stubbs

Martin Myrone is a curator at Tate Britain, London, specializing in 18th- and 19th-century British art. He is the author of a monograph on George Stubbs (2002).

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