Thursday, 5 November 2009

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

George Stubbs
A Lion Attacking a Horse (c.1765
oil on canvas, 69x100.1
Felton Bequest

This painting was acquired by the NGV in 1949 on the advice of Sir Kenneth Clark, who wrote to the Gallery Director: "… the group itself is marvellous and had a great influence on the Romantic Movement. Gericault actually did a copy of it. I think it was cheap at £500, and would rather have it than a second-rate Braque at £2,000."

George Stubbs was perhaps the most famous painter of horses that British art has produced. As an artist, he was largely self-taught.

He had always been interested in anatomy and In 1756 he rented a farmhouse in Lincolnshire, where he spent two years dissecting horses and making anatomical drawings. In 1766 he published "The Anatomy of the Horse", a masterpiece which the "Oxford Companion to Art" calls "The most unique thing of its kind ever compiled". The original drawings are now in the collection of the Royal Academy.

Stubbs' work was soon greatly in demand. By 1763 he had produced a lucrative body of work for many wealthy and artistocratic patrons and was able to buy a house in fashionable Marylebone, where he lived for the rest of his life.

His most famous work is probably "Whistlejacket", a huge (eight by ten feet) painting of a rearing horse. It was commissioned by the Marquis of Rockingham and is now a showpiece of the National Gallery in London.

It is one of those pictures whose powerful presence have stopped me in my tracks like a fist to the solar plexus. Not that I have ever received an actual fist to the solar plexus, I am thankful to say, but I have watched many a film by Quentin Tarantino and I know the effect. Those breath-stoppers are usually huge, like "Whistlejacket", Kokoschka's "Bride of the Wind" and Leonardo's "Madonna of the Rocks", but there are some little ones that punch far above their weight: Vermeer's "Milkmaid" in the Rijksmuseum is only 15 by 18 inches, but it has no trouble making me cry every time I see it.

In painting "Whistlejacket", Stubbs broke with convention in placing the horse against a plain background, which only enhanced the powerful effect of the image. The Marquis of Rockingham paid Stubbs 60 guineas for the painting. It remained in the family until the National Gallery acquired it 230 years later for the sum of £11 million: a tidy profit!

A Hellenistic marble sculpture of a "Lion Attacking a Horse" (now in the garden of the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome) was discovered in the River Almo more than a thousand years ago.

Hellenistic sculpture is characterized by exaggerated emotional display and virtuoso naturalistic detail. This sculpture was restored in 1594 and inspired many Renaissance artists to produce works in similar vein.

In the nineteenth century, the subject of a lion attacking a horse was again a very popular one and it recurs in the work of many sculptors and painters of the era. The metaphysical philosophy of Edmund Burke was in vogue at the time, especially his popular concept of the Sublime: the passion engendered by fear of death.

The horse was regarded as a noble creature, whereas he lion symbolized the primeval forces of unbound, often brutal, nature. When it showed terror, the horse — powerful, beautiful, and noble as man himself — exemplified the Sublime. The horse’s shock at encountering the lion reflected the viewer’s own.

Stubbs, who had seen the famous Hellenistic group in Rome, was preoccupied by this dramatic theme for thirty years, creating a whole series of lion-and-horse works: paintings, enamels, prints and even a relief model in clay. He drew the setting from his studies of Creswell Crags, a rocky, unpopulated landscape in Nottinghamshire.

The NGV also holds this sculpture of a lion attacking a horse, by Antoine-Louis Barye, one of the most prominent sculptors of the Romantic Movement in France.

Well known for the brilliant technique and realistic detail of his sculptures of animals in mortal combat, he was known as "the Michaelangelo of the Menagerie". Auguste Rodin was one of his students.

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