- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2005

Horses have long inspired great art. Symbols of beauty, passion and energy, they have galloped across the ancient Parthenon, pranced onto Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbooks and raced through drawings by French impressionist Edgar Degas.

Of all the artists who have depicted horses, none has been more responsive to their nobility than George Stubbs. The 18th-century British artist devoted his entire career to the animals and their owners. Once dismissed as a lowly painter of sporting scenes, Stubbs was largely rediscovered in the early 1960s by philanthropist and horse enthusiast Paul Mellon, who collected more than 40 of the artist’s paintings.

It’s easy to understand Mellon’s attraction to this equine art while viewing some of his collection and other works in “Stubbs and the Horse,” an exhibition opening tomorrow at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum. The fillies in these paintings come across like movie stars with well-toned physiques and skittish personalities, as if the canvases were created for the animals.

In painting them, Stubbs didn’t just, well, horse around. While still in his early 30s, he spent 18 months dissecting horse cadavers to measure and draw their anatomy. A selection of these beautifully drafted studies is shown at the start of the exhibit to reveal how the artist recorded every muscle, vein and bone with scientific accuracy. Also displayed is “The Anatomy of the Horse,” a groundbreaking book published in 1766 that features 18 plates etched from the drawings, along with descriptive observations by the artist.

Humans had been sketched anatomically before, but never a single animal in such great detail, and Stubbs’ drawings won him admirers among Britain’s landed gentry. Commissions for country landscapes flowed in, and soon Stubbs was painting scenes of his wealthy patrons’ most prized possessions, Thoroughbred racing horses.

The result of breeding stallions from the Middle East and Africa with British mares, Thoroughbreds were a recent development in the 1700s. Their speed and stamina led breeders to compete to produce faster contestants for Britain’s growing sport of horse racing. In the exhibit’s second gallery, Stubbs pays tribute to this world by documenting the Seabiscuits, Seattle Slews and Man o’ Wars of his age in all their muscular glory.

These paintings of Thoroughbreds, with names such as Lustre, Turf and Gimcrack sometimes lettered on the canvas, don’t capture the crowds or excitement of the racetrack. Instead, they project the individuality of each speedy steed — these, after all, are portraits — though the horses are positioned similarly in full profile instead of from the back or front as in the anatomical studies.

Flattened ears, frightened eyes, protruding ribs and blood vessels, even the white spots where the saddle has rubbed the horse’s coat, reveal Stubbs’ ability to capture both detail and emotion. In most of these paintings, the horses are more sensitively portrayed than the grooms, stable boys and jockeys astride or standing near them.

Stubbs typically placed his animals and figures within idealized, pastoral settings, though he sometimes included the brick buildings where the horses were rubbed down. Some of the most compelling pieces in the exhibit have plain backgrounds, allowing the viewer to focus on what Stubbs painted best — the horses.

In “Mares and Foals” (1762), Stubbs’ anatomical mastery is shown to full effect through horses in a variety of poses that create sinuous curves across the broad canvas.

Another stunner is a 9-foot-tall portrait of Whistlejacket, a rearing chestnut stallion with a flowing white tail. Stubbs was tapped to paint the stallion as part of an equestrian portrait of King George III, with the idea that portrait and landscape artists would be brought in to fill in the rest.

The horse looked so real that, according to a Stubbs biographer, Whistlejacket tried to attack his own image, presumably mistaking it for a rival. That event so impressed the artist’s patron that monarch and surroundings were kept out of the painting.

The painting appears almost contemporary in its juxtaposition of a lone, spirited horse on a khaki field. Investing the animal with humanlike heroism, Stubbs might well have been symbolizing the American Revolution during King George III’s reign. (As it turns out, the patron of the painting led the Whig political party, which supported independence for the Colonies.)

Stubbs yearned for acceptance by the art establishment of his day, and some of his paintings reflect the interest in classical antiquity that became fashionable in the 1700s. Displayed in the last gallery of the exhibit are several imaginary scenes, based on an ancient Hellenistic sculpture in Rome, of horses being stalked and attacked by lions. These images aim to create what philosopher Edmund Burke called a “sublime” effect, enabling the viewer to experience terror at a safe distance.

Stubbs clearly was better at painting horses than lions, and some of these fight scenes look more comical than scary. Nevertheless, they indicate the artist’s expressive range and his search to infuse his equine imagery with higher meaning through allegory and myth.

Though Stubbs never achieved prestige in artistic circles, he kept painting animals, including rhinos, zebras and kangaroos, and trying out new techniques. In the 1770s, he experimented with wax and enamel to find a medium more durable than oil paint. Collaboration with noted potter Josiah Wedgwood led to the self-portrait in the show, painted in enamel on earthenware.

Given its theme, the exhibit no doubt will appeal to the horsy set from Hunt Valley, Md., and Potomac, who certainly will appreciate the authentic English hunting and racing scenes. But in stressing Stubbs’ painstaking empiricism, the exhibit reveals him to be much more than a genre painter. There is ample substance here to prompt even those who don’t ride horses to saddle up and drive to Baltimore.

WHAT: “Stubbs and the Horse”

WHERE: The Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., Baltimore

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays; open until 10 p.m. on the second Friday of each month. Through May 29.

TICKETS: $10 adults, $8 seniors, $6 college students, $2 children ages 6 to 17;free for members and children under 6

PHONE: 410/547-9000

WEB SITE: www.thewalters.org

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