Animals in Art - George Stubbs
GEORGE STUBBS (1742-1806)
'Mares and Foals in a River Landscape', 1763-68 (oil on canvas)
George Stubbs is the greatest painter of horses in British art and arguably the best in the history of art.
However, Stubbs was not always regarded as a great artist. In his own day he was considered to be a mere horse painter, a second class subject in the eyes of the art establishment. Equestrian art, which was included within the genre of 'sporting art', was looked down upon by the critics and connoisseurs, probably due to its rural patronage. As it was the hunting, shooting and racing gentry who were Stubbs' greatest patrons, he tended to be overlooked as a serious artist. However, time strips away all prejudice about an artist's achievements and in the 20th century his reputation was firmly re-assessed to establish him as as one of the greatest masters of the 18th century.
George Stubbs' subjects may reflect the romantic idealism of their age but they are lifted above the sentimental by their skilful composition and intense observation which generate the gravitas that marks all great art. In the 1760's Stubbs painted a series of about ten pictures of Mares and Foals that were set against traditional views of the English countryside. 'Mares and Foals in a River Landscape' is one of the best of the series. The mares greet one another in a dignified silence while the foals feed from their mothers. These noble creatures are completely at ease in their peaceful landscape.
Stubbs cleverly incorporates the horses into the landscape by using a subtle counter-change of tones to integrate them with the background: he contrasts the light profile of the white horse against a dark cloud in order to counterbalance the dark profiles of chestnut mares against the light sky. This tonal exchange is mirrored in the layout of the landscape where the bright billowing clouds are echoed by the dark forms of the tree. Even the foals seem to draw milk from their mothers in much the same way that the land draws sustenance from the river. This is an idyllic vision of a Utopian world uncorrupted by the presence of man.