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Thursday, 24 June 2010

Horse Painters

George Stubbs
the Genre

One in a Series

By Richard Carreño
Junto Senior Staff Writer Bio
I've been a groupie of George Stubbs, the 18th-century English sporting artist, for as long as I can remember. Well, ever since, as a teenager, I visited the Tate Gallery (as it was known then) to see its Stubbs collection. Over the years, I've followed up with pilgrimages to major collections at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; the Woolavington Collection, Northampton; and, in the 1980s, I even made my way to Worcester, Massachusetts, to the Public Library there, to view one of the rare full sets of Stubbs' anatomical drawings of the horse.

Fortunately, for American fans of British sporting art, some of the world's greatest collections of this genre -- and thanks largely to the late horseman and art collector Paul Mellon -- are found in the United States, at the Richmond Museum of Fine Arts and, most significantly, at Yale, at the Center for British Art. At New Haven, scores of great works by Stubbs and other period artists (Alfred Munnings is just one) are showcased cheek-by-jowl, floor by floor. (Remember those anatomical drawings from Worcester? They're now at the Center for British Art, as well).

Closer to home, Philadelphians can get a local taste of Stubbs' oeuvre at the Museum of Art. Three pictures, The Grosvenor Hunt, Hound Coursing a Stag, and Labourers Loading a Brick Cart-- albeit not of such great stature and fame as Whistlejacket (at the National Gallery, London) or Horse and Lion (at Yale) are on permanent display, this time thanks to a gift by John H. McFadden, one of the museum's founding donors.

What is less known -- and rarely seen -- is another Stubbs work (one of those famous anatomical plates I first saw in Worcester) that's been squirreled away at the University of Pennsylvania over the years without much notice, nor fanfare.

It isn't surprising that Stubbs (1724-1806), given his almost inbred renown among sporting art connoisseurs trolling Bond Street galleries and Mayfair auction houses and, similarly, among effete interior decorators of geezer men's clubs and cholesterol-laden steak houses, needs be reintroduced to the wider art world from time to time.

But Stubbs is hardly just an artist for the horsey set or its wannabes. Since the ancient Greeks, horses have been portrayed with reverence, romance, and with varying degrees of accuracy. That changed forever with Stubbs, the son of a tanner who eventually transformed the way artists depicted horses and sporting scenes. What 19th-century English photographer Eadweard Muybridge did in photography (capturing, in never-before accuracy, the gaits of horses in series of stop-motion pictures), Stubbs, a hundred years before, was also able to do in oil, harnessing a new realism (based on his dissections of the horse, depicted in his pen-and-ink plates) to the canvasses of sporting art.

Sometimes being reminded of Stubbs requires a block-buster, such as was the case with the 'Stubbs and the Horse' retrospective that toured the United States in 2005. (I saw the collection at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore).

Other times, there's a peg to a new unveiling. The bicentennial of his death in 2006 was the latest advertised reason for a show of Stubbs' virtuoso repertoire of paintings of wildlife, dogs, barnyard animals, and most important, of course, horses, at the Frick Collection in New York. The show was originally organized by the Walker Art Galley in Liverpool, and was earlier, as well, at the Tate Britain (what the Tate Gallery is now called).

'No other 18th-century British painter who was so successful in his own lifetime was so quickly forgotten after his death,' Denise Allen, a Frick associate curator, noted in a Collection publication, which I picked up when I visited the exhibit.

Interestingly , a bit of the painter is also, as I mentioned, at Penn, publicly available at the Van-Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. (Penn, or government-issued photo ID, is required). To be sure, Penn's contribution is only a Stubbs starter-kit, though part of larger horse-related art collected by the 19th century professor Fairman Rogers, yclept the Rogers Collection of Books on the Horse and Equitation.

The Stubbs drawing, in particular, of 'the bones, cartilages, muscles, fascias, ligaments, nerves, arteries, veins, glands....' printed in 1766 -- is by now an old friend, since my first viewing more than 20 years ago in Worcester.

Rogers, a Penn trustee, co-founder of university's School of Veterinary Medicine, and coaching expert, was, if anything, eclectic. Works in the collection from 18th century 'reflect the traditional view of horses as noble creatures' and 'the interests and perceptions of those who had the means to own and utilize horses, namely the upper classes.' But Rogers, though a bluestocking Philadelphian himself, had more expansive ambitions, as well, collecting works from less tony endeavours, equine medicine to horseshoeing.

No less a figure than Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) is also represented in the collection. Sixteen prints of 'an electro-photographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movements, 1872-1885,' published by Penn in 1887, are familiar from re-publication.

Visit the Rogers Collection to see the Stubbs. Stay to see the rest.

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