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GEORGE STUBBS (1724-1806): A Celebration

At the Frick Collection

By Glenn Loney



The Frick Collection
1 E. 70th St.

Closing May 27, 2007

On Fifth Avenue and the streets around the Frick Collection the vertical lamp-post banner for the George Stubbs exhibition is a Collector’s Item, but no one seems to know how one can get one of these Post-Show--without getting a ladder to climb the post.…

And what is the arresting Image, Stubbs having been the Master of Portraits of English Thoroughbred Horses & Their Noble Owners?

It is the super-dramatic picture of a terrified White Horse, drawing back from a Lurking Lion, titled, appropriately enough, as: A Horse Frightened by a Lion!

Oh, I just called the Frick, and they are very pleased that so many people have admired this banner so much. But the image itself is essentially the property of London’s Tate Gallery, so the banners cannot be either sold or given-away. Alas!

Stubbs’ steeds, white and otherwise, have recently been big Audience-Attractions, both at the Tate and at London’s National Gallery/Sainsbury Wing.

This is something of Delayed Recognition, more than two centuries after the actuality. Although Stubbs knew how good he was at painting horses and other animals, his more Exalted Artist-Colleagues in the Royal Academy tended to look down on a fellow who did not paint great Religio-Mytho-Historical canvases. Or at the very least, Noble English Families--without their horses & hunting-dogs.

Stubbs was also a Master of Animal Anatomy, having dissected whole carcasses to discover how horses--and even humans--‘were put together and animated. His Anatomy of the Horse [1766] is not only extremely valuable for its magnificent plates, but it is also valued for what he has to reveal about the relationships of bones, muscles, sinews, & skin…

In the current Frick exhibition, there are also canvases of farm-workers in the field. Stubbs’ Haymakers is interesting--especially for the way he has shown female-workers with pitchforks and in full skirts and often elaborate hats, their costumes seemingly more suited to tea-time in Chelsea’s Cheyne Walk!

[Just above the bookshelf where I rediscovered my giant Gustave Doré volumes, there is a small but lovely painting of a beautiful Thoroughbred Mare, with a frisky colt. Several art-historian friends have suggested it looks like a small Stubbs--and that I should have it cleaned, in any case.

[As I bought it half-a-century ago for only five shillings/6p in a junk-shop near Paddington Station, I never saw the wisdom in spending hundreds to have it cleaned. The varnish is so dark now that it is not easy to see what might be underneath, but there does seem to be a bright blue sky & mounds of cumulus clouds behind the horses.

[It was part of the unwanted left-overs of an Estate Sale at a great Country House. What makes me question its possible Stubbsian Pedigree is the fact that the colt is hiding its head behind its mother’s neck, its rump pointed toward the viewer.

[Wouldn’t Stubbs have painted the colt in front of its mother? On the other hand, if the purpose was to depict a great Breeding-Mare, you would not want your eyes to be distracted by the head of a cute colt, would you?

[I’d save money and clean it myself, but I’m afraid WD-40 is too strong for the job…]