The love affair between the English and their dogs is one of the most worn stereotypes that evokes ideas of sentimentality, country life and – on the subject of breeding and bloodlines – perhaps some sort of class consciousness and snobbery have traditionally been counted as national traits. Like all clichés, the relevance and truthfulness of these associations may be questionable, but the English upper class’s particular affection for their animals was an assumption by many commentators in the 18th century and has particular relevance to the history of the visual arts.
Many critics believed that it was the preoccupation of the rich with their homes, families and animals that had hampered the advancement of the arts in Britain. Instead of commissioning high-minded scenes based on classical literature or myths, English aristocrats only bought portraits of themselves and their possessions. The pictures by George Stubbs (1724–1806) – the most successful animal painter of the late 18th century and widely recognized as one of the greatest figures in art history – cannot only tell us about the animals he portrayed. but also about the values and expectations of the culture in which he lived.
Stubbs’ career does not fit the usual pattern associated with the “great artist”. His early life was peripatetic and unfocused. He was born in Liverpool Harbor in 1724 to a currier or leather dresser – “a black, greasy business” that, according to a contemporary source, “requires no other skill besides power.” At a time of expansion fueled by the transatlantic slave trade (as more liberal citizens were uncomfortably aware), Liverpool was just beginning to develop a cultural life. His family business offered little material support and even less the social status and connections that could lead a young man into the artist’s profession. Instead, the young Stubbs roam the cities of northern England – Hull, Leeds and York, and Liverpool – taking portraits of paintings for the local nobility, producing medical illustrations, and even studying and even teaching anatomy at the York hospital. Neither art nor medicine were organized on a very formal basis at the time, and the rare skills of visual observation and anatomical understanding that were important in both areas made them much closer than we would expect today.
Norfolk water dog or poodle in a boat, 1778
Oil on canvas
50 x 40 inches
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Paul Mellon Collection
In 1754, Stubbs seems to have somehow received the financial assistance necessary to go to Rome to study art, the conventional way of being noticed by elite art patrons. But even after the trip he had little name as a painter and no place in the circles of London patrons who could bring him fame and fortune. The big turning point came in 1756-1758 when he hid in a remote rural barn and performed an extraordinary series of horse dissections. This was a completely new undertaking; Traditionally, horse anatomy illustrations have been based on models from the 16th century rather than new observations.
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These designs, eventually published as The Anatomy of the Horse (1766), were an extremely risky undertaking, both financially and physically. Without effective disinfectants, anatomy was a terribly dangerous business in the 18th century. Many surgeons and veterinarians fell ill and some even died. But it was a gamble that paid off. The paintings of hunts and racehorses that Stubbs made for the well-placed patrons who now occupied him – including the Duke of Richmond, Lord Grosvenor, and the Marquis of Rockingham – were artistically ambitious and materially rewarding. No previous English artist had been able to bring such a thorough understanding of animal anatomy to fruition. Given the added presence of the newly established annual contemporary art exhibitions (first arranged in London in the 1760s), these images have helped make Stubbs a prominent name.
Five dogs in a landscape (around 1760; private collection) was one of the canvases painted for Rockingham. Carefully arranged in slightly different positions, the bodies of the three dogs and two bitches form a series of rhyming and interconnected shapes that guide our eyes across the canvas, inviting us to contemplate and admire the delicate bodies of the animals. Contemporaries would have associated this type of composition with the frieze-like arrangements seen in ancient Roman sculptures – noble source materials typically used for high-minded scenes of human activity rather than the representation of animals.
From the 1770s, his dog portraits grew in size and size, with his paintings of individual spaniels and foxhounds and the frankly rather strange, if still impressive, portrait of a poodle in a boat (1778; Mellon Collection). Pair of Foxhounds (1792; Tate, London) shows a bitch and a dog, probably from the famous well-bred pack in Brocklesby, Lincolnshire. The two animals dominate the pictorial space, which is arranged in profile to emphasize their outlines and the symmetry between them. The composition is complicated in a visually interesting way when their bodies overlap. In the truest sense of the word, these are portraits that give the “sitters” as much individual dignity as one can expect from a human image.
The anatomical precision, compositional size and monumentality of Stubbs’ paintings shaped his work in the increasingly competitive art market of the late 18th century. As Britain’s economic prosperity and political influence increased during these years, there were increasing efforts among various social sectors to create a suitable cultural scene. Gentlemen and professionals, entrepreneurs, artists and sponsors vied for leadership and agreed with the values of intellectual clarity and moral certainty that we call “Enlightenment”.
Stubbs’ paintings were calculated to embody the enlightened cultural values of this class of patrons while indulging their established interest in traditional land sports and dog breeding.
The formal size and clinical qualities of his art endowed such productions with dignity and freed them (at least in principle) from the criticism that was increasingly directed against the rather fragmented world of country sports. In this dignified pictorial form, Stubbs’ dogs are evidence of the potential for progress and improvement that has been so important in other areas – agriculture, industry and commerce, and social.
Stubbs’ dog painting can be viewed as a sort of balancing act in which the artist attempted to combine a scientific approach to anatomy, elaborate compositions, and an emphasis on the craft of painting in a way that could suit the concerns of a generation of wealthy patrons, both theirs wanted to celebrate traditional attachment to rural rituals as well as the modernity of their tastes. However, after an initial period of recognition in the 1760s and 1770s, his work received increased criticism. His efforts to focus on human portraits and painting rural scenes were generally not well received. His more clinical, highly skilled painting style seemed out of date compared to the obviously emotional and expressive manners of the paintings that were becoming fashionable. His art proclaims the power of observation in both science and art; The paintings of a younger generation were much more about imagination and creativity. The wider brushwork seen in some of the end-of-life works produced may be a response to these changes, but it failed to convince. Meanwhile, the aristocratic sports enthusiasts who were his greatest supporters became increasingly competitive and marginalized as the cultural values of the urban middle class began to dominate the social world.
Stubbs’ last major project was an expanded series of drawings of dissected tigers, chickens and humans that, according to the biographical notes of his friend Ozias Humphry, showed “the analogy between the human body, the four-legged friend and the poultry”. Also give an accurate description of the bones, cartilage, muscles, fasciae and ligaments (which he wanted to transfer to the plant world). “Given the scale of this great project, Stubbs would probably have done dog anatomies, although none survived. He died in July 1806 without this “Comparative Anatomy” being published in full. Stubbs was a professional artist for about 60 years; Still, he appears to have been in considerable debt when he died.
Portrait of Baron De Robeck riding a bay hunter
Oil on canvas, in a carved and gilded British ‘Marratta’ frame
101.5 x 127 cm, 40 x 50 inches.
“Comparative Anatomy” should have been Stubbs’ great, definitive monument, but the publication of the prints reproducing these drawings went almost unnoticed. The worlds of art and science that these designs sought to connect separated when scientists and artists defined themselves as different professions with different formal qualifications and values. The fate of Stubbs’ animal art registers not only the decline of his personal fortune, but also the passing of a moment in which the worries of self-confidently enlightened patrons and the ambitions of a most unusual painter could be brought together to create a lasting powerful image of the animal world. As visually authoritative and emotionally appealing as they may be, Stubbs’ dog paintings also bear witness to a number of values that have been lost to us, values that are balanced between tradition and modernity, scientific observation and aesthetics.