"George Stubbs: A Celebration": The Frick Collection, New York.
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. These paintings, some executed on a positively heroic scale, were as nothing seen before. Incorporating portraiture and expansive landscape, and populated by varied and spirited animals, these frieze-like compositions, while seemingly informal, are, in reality, as rigorously and painstakingly thought-out as High Renaissance frescoes. Even when repeating a formula--the horse "portrait"--well-established by his predecessors Wooton, Tillemans, and Spencer, Stubbs added to these seemingly "simple" compositions a hitherto unimagined atmospheric richness and structural gravity. To grasp the qualitative and inventive leap accomplished by Stubbs, one needs only to recall the work of his close contemporary Francis Sartorius, a primitive and incompetent hack working in a similar genre and for much the same clientele.
Stubbs was thoughtfully deliberate not only in design, but in execution as well. He was, after all, as were most British painters, largely self-taught. His images were produced by a careful, almost labored, accretion of tiny, discrete strokes. Colors were usually already mixed on the palette with a resulting lack of transparency, the finished surfaces always a bit pasty and "chalk)," Indeed, examined at close range, the surface of a Stubbs painting is not particularly satisfying: the forms are all too scrupulously "reserved" and flow uneasily into one another. Stubbs, it has been said, is the least spontaneous of artists--"facile," the least appropriate of adjectives to describe him. Not surprisingly, he found supports such as copper, panel, and ceramic particularly agreeable; the latter provided him with an opportunity to experiment and create immaculately "smooth" images almost devoid of painterly qualities. If Hogarth, another autodidact, would, as he said, "have to get things wrong before getting them right," Stubbs struggled mightily to have his images spring to life fully formed and finished.
It has been said that this deliberate, stolid approach to his art is totally consistent with what is known of Stubbs's character and how he lived his life: diligently, soberly, and quietly. One might add that these are the qualities that impart both the weight of reality and the charm of a fable to his best paintings. It is worth remembering, in this respect, that Stubbs made the obligatory. pilgrimage to Rome in his youth. He stayed only briefly, and "the classics" elicited only negligible response from him. Could this be because his visual imagination had already so little to learn from the experience? Judging by even his earliest works, it seems clear that Stubbs looked primarily to nature and, from it, fashioned his own very personal classicism.
The integrity and steadfastness with which Stubbs remained true to his inner calling may well have determined the progressive decline in favor that he suffered in later years. Clearly, Stubbs was not an artist capable of adapting as fashion or favor dictated. As a result, by the 1780S, his art was less and less on view at Academy shows; the grand commissions of the mid-1760s were definitely a thing of the past. Toward the end of his life, now totally and almost obsessively engrossed in his impossible Comparative Exposition project, the aging artist virtually disappeared from view and from memory.
Even within the reduced scale of the Frick exhibition, one can only admire this artist's uncompromising, unchanging vision. Were it not for the occasionally documented or dated work, and the research of recent scholarship, developing a Stubbs chronology based on the works alone would be arduous indeed. In a way, not needing to consider such issues enhances the experience. It is as if we were witnessing a grand theme--nature, and man's place in it--unfold before our eyes in its many variations, all perfectly in key with one another, in a world ruled by clarity and order of reason. Even in the imagined scenes of violently battling beasts, there is an anthropomorphic quality to the wild creatures that transforms the action into an emblematic, timeless event. These are the rare instances in the art of Stubbs where the winds of Romanticism blow, if ever so gently. No danger, however, that they will ruffle the calm in this sea of tranquility, this peaceful realm of Reason.
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|Title Annotation:||Exhibition notes|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2007|
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