"George Stubbs: A Celebration": The Frick Collection, New York

By Grassi, Marco | New Criterion, April 2007 | Go to article overview

"George Stubbs: A Celebration": The Frick Collection, New York


Grassi, Marco, New Criterion


"George Stubbs: A Celebration" The Frick Collection, New York. February 21, 2007-May 27, 2007

When George Stubbs arrived in London from the north, about 1759, he was already thirty-five and had been a practicing artist for at least fifteen years. But he was an unknown. What he carried with him, however, propelled him to almost instant recognition and fame. For the previous two years and secluded in a Lincolnshire hamlet, Stubbs had labored with incredible diligence and perseverance creating more than forty elaborately detailed anatomical drawings of horses. Engraved over the next seven years and published in 1766 as The Anatomy of the Horse, the work ranks as one of the great achievements of British art of the Enlightenment. Together with A Comparative Exposition of the Human Body with that of a Tiger and a Common Fowl, begun when Stubbs was seventy-one, but never completed, the two hugely ambitious undertakings can be considered the book-ends of a prolific and remarkable career.

The Frick exhibition, marking the bicentenary of the artist's death, comprises a small selection drawn from considerably larger shows that have already been seen in Liverpool and London. The works included, however, do manage to represent admirably the main themes and phases of Stubbs's long artistic journey.

Even casual visitors to "George Stubbs: A Celebration" will initially be struck by the uncanny consistency of style and execution that marks these eighteen paintings, executed over a span of almost forty years. That uniformity, more than any other quality, describes the essence of this gifted and almost obsessively single-minded artist. Were it not for the great variety of subjects, techniques, and formats on display, one might easily dismiss Stubbs as a limited, even boring, creative spirit. Indeed, for most of the nineteenth century, if he was mentioned at all (which was rarely), Stubbs was invariably associated with horse "portraits." This surely contributed greatly to the obscurity into which his name and reputation lapsed, an eclipse that actually began even in his lifetime. Its causes are still, to this day, unclear, particularly if considered in the light of the significant success that Stubbs enjoyed following his arrival in London.

The timing of that arrival could not have been more propitious: it occurred at mid-century, a period of unprecedented economic prosperity. England's domestic agricultural production was the source of dramatically increasing wealth for the landed classes even as expanding international commerce steadily enriched urban merchants and artisans. The great country seat came to identify ever more specifically the cultural and social aspirations of the aristocracy. Robert Adam, another immigrant from the north, would, just in these years, be engaged in some of his most innovative and ambitious projects. All that we now associate with country life in Britain--the cultivated pursuits of the arts that resulted in the building of great libraries, collections, and gardens--together with the noble pursuits of the field that centered on the chase, the hunt, and the turf--these all experienced their most vigorous flowering in the second half of the eighteenth century and came to embody the ideal of aristocratic life.

Intimately bound to that ideal were the equestrian sports. Privately organized racing meets, blood-stock documentation and control, training and dressage; these were all being actively developed. The creation of the Jockey Club in 1750 was just one of the events that prepared the way to what would become the modern Turf. A young, ambitious, and talented painter coming to London in those years and armed with an unparalleled understanding of the horse and its anatomy could not but have been rewarded with lavish patronage. Stubbs was, in fact, soon sought out by a number of Whig grandees--Grafton, Rockingham, Grosvenor, and Bolingbroke among them--whose commissions resulted in what are today regarded as supreme masterworks of British art. …

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