Renaissance figure Leonardo da Vinci is famous for many things, from designing the first helicopter to painting the Mona Lisa. One of his most notable achievements was to capture human anatomy on paper, board, and canvas. From the Renaissance onward, science and art went hand in hand, especially in rendering the human form. Horses and other animals, on the other hand, were not always studied in so much detail.
George Stubbs (English, 1724 – 1806) was one of the first artists to use extensive equine anatomical study in his body of work. Stubbs was mostly self-taught, and he studied human dissection at York Hospital to inform his art. His fascination with anatomy then led Stubbs to published Anatomy of a Horse in 1766.
The ability to convincingly capture individual horse conformation and motion on canvas eluded most artists of this time. Stubbs, in contract, was not only able to render a horse with paint, but to place the horse within the composition naturally and effectively.
Stubbs was made President of the Society of Artists in 1772 and elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1780; he exhibited for both groups. Stubbs’ recognition, however, seemed to stall even though his skill was recognized far and wide. Animal subjects were relegated to a lower order than historic, figurative, and landscape art in a hierarchy long established by fine art academies and art critics. Stubbs continued to study and paint, but passed away with little fanfare in 1806.
George Stubbs’ contributions to art do not rest solely in the “animal painter” genre. Though known for his sporting scenes, Stubbs’ dedication to realism and anatomy place him in the category of artists who, like Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo, seek the truth in art through science.
Want to know more about George Stubbs and British sporting art? Visit the National Sporting Library & Museum this Spring to see A Sporting Vision: The Paul Mellon Collection of British Sporting Art from the from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, a traveling exhibition organized by VMFA, on view April 13 – July 22, 2018.
Anne Marie Barnes is the Clarice & Robert H. Smith Educator at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM). Her passion for museum work began shortly after graduation with a Bachelor’s degree in History from James Madison University. Between her experience working at the Fredericksburg Area Museum & Cultural Center and the Washington Heritage Museums, she has done everything from designing summer camps to formulating major fundraisers. Have a question? Contact Anne Marie by e-mail