“George Stubbs, Painter” was the byline affixed to his famous 1766 book, “The Anatomy of the Horse.” But he was, and is, most often referred to as George Stubbs, the horse painter, a sobriquet that he disliked. Because Stubbs was more than a horse painter, as viewers will see in Gallery 629 on the second floor of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where eight Stubbs beauties are on loan from the Yale Center for British Art, which acquired them from philanthropist and art collector Paul Mellon. The Louis I. Kahn building in New Haven is undergoing renovation and will reopen in 2016.
Now through November 8, the Met is showcasing a genre that is in short supply on its premises — sporting art. The museum owns only one oil painting by George Stubbs, but it has an impressive stable of portrait paintings by other 18th century British masters — think Gainsborough, Reynolds, Romney and Lawrence — and has trotted them out to display opposite Stubbs’ sporting works to highlight the brilliance of the period and evolving tastes.
Stubbs, for his part, was less interested in painting his noble patrons and their aristocratic friends than he was in painting his noble patrons and their aristocratic friends in the company of their racing horses and dogs — or, better still, just the horses and the hounds (he reveled in painting working dogs and pet dogs alike). The human figures in his paintings tend to be dwarfed by, and compete with, the natural environment and members of the animal kingdom, especially the stallions, the mares, the fillies and the colts. Stubbs had a penchant for exotic animals as well, and was enthralled by the majesty of the English countryside. But he made his money painting horses.
Born in Liverpool in 1724, this son of a currier was self-taught. He studied human anatomy at York County Hospital in the 1740s and illustrated a treatise on midwifery. He later assumed the onerous task of dissecting horses in a barn in Horkstow, Lincolnshire, a project that consumed him for 18 months from 1756-1758. He would purchase a live horse, bleed it to death by slitting its jugular vein, and then use hooks to suspend the cadaver from an iron bar attached to the ceiling. He settled the horse’s hoofs on a plank and positioned the dead animal for observation.
Stubbs, who was assisted in this endeavor by Mary Spencer, his common-law wife for more than 50 years, drew what he saw, replacing the models with fresh cadavers every six or seven weeks, “or as long as they were fit for use,” Stubbs told his memoirist, Ozias Humphry, according to an account in Judy Egerton’s catalogue of the artist’s known works. He eventually amassed the material for his study, “The Anatomy of the Horse,” with text and engravings that he prepared himself.
The entrance to the mini-exhibit in Gallery 629 is flanked by the show’s two serene horse paintings, “Turf, with Jockey up, at Newmarket” (ca. 1765) and “Lustre, held by a Groom” (ca. 1762). The former is situated at the fashionable racing center, with bay colt and jockey anticipating the beginning of a race, framed by a golden rubbing house and a white post.
The rubbing house depicted in “Turf” is commemorated in one of only two genuine landscapes painted by Stubbs, and is impressively on display here: “Newmarket Heath, with a Rubbing-down House” (ca. 1765). The small painting of the blocky building on the heath, containing stalls where the horses were saddled and then rubbed down after the races, is a prime example of Stubbs’ preoccupation with quiet moments — the before and after moments. He leaves the action — the charge of the animals, the frenzied spectators, victory and defeat — to the imagination.
The darker horse painting, “Lustre, held by a Groom,” commemorates the moment when the 1760 chestnut race winner, Lustre, is turned out to stud. The work is a testament to the symbiotic relationship between horse and groom, both “slightly canted, suggesting the bond between them,” we learn.
But Stubbs’ range is on full view here with his four-part “Shooting Series” (ca. 1767-1770) documenting a bird hunt from start to finish — two friends, with two pointers, readying their guns, searching for prey, nailing their prey and resting under a canopy of trees with their catch. The figures take a back seat to craggy mountains, grassy expanses and tree trunks. One of the works, “Two Gentlemen Shooting” (ca. 1769), features a wounded partridge falling out of the sky, feet in the air — a curious speck in the far right of the canvas, which to 21st century eyes looks oddly like a drone.
Topping off this micro-survey is “Freeman, the Earl of Clarendon’s gamekeeper, with a dying doe and hound” (1800), considered Stubbs’ most enigmatic work. It’s a haunting scene and makes you yearn for more.