A Lion Attacking a Horse (c.1765
oil on canvas, 69x100.1
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.