Anatomy Lessons

The Anatomical Works of George Stubbs

by Terence Doherty
Godine, 356, 270 black-and-white plates pp., $85.00

George Stubbs
George Stubbs; drawing by David Levine

Sixteen years ago it was possible for the learned Dr. Schmalenbach to produce a study of the role of the horse in the history of art and never once to mention George Stubbs. When Adel des Pferdes was translated into English under the title The Noble Horse with an introduction by Lionel Edwards, the omission was noted, but without astonishment. Mr. Edwards was no doubt aware that European art historians, if they could be persuaded to recognize the existence of any British art at all, would think of it only in terms of portrait painting or of landscape. Moreover it was usual to describe the islanders as a race of colorists, vaguely sentimental observers of light and color, virtuosos of the brush but not, as we should now say, of the pencil. The English, it was generally agreed, had never produced a competent draftsman.

There is a view of English eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century painting which permits a reasonably absent-minded critic to accept such a generalization; but it is a position that becomes increasingly hard to maintain as we rediscover the half-forgotten work of Wright of Derby and of George Stubbs. Indeed, today the tendency is so much reversed that we are in some danger of forgetting the portrait painters entirely; but it would be unreasonable to complain of a current of opinion which is so long overdue and which has given us Benedict Nicolson’s valuable study of Wright of Derby. The late Basil Taylor would, we hoped, give the world a definitive monograph on Stubbs and perhaps one may still hope for a posthumous work; for the moment we have his interim essay of 1971, Constance Anne Parker’s critical biography of the same year, and now the present imposing volume of the anatomical works by Terence Doherty.

No one who is at all familiar with the work of Wright and of Stubbs can doubt that they were exact and competent draftsmen. There are other points of resemblance and it seems probable that Wright, who was born in 1734, ten years after Stubbs, owed a good deal to his senior, but the common circumstances of their careers suggest other reasons why both artists should have developed as they did. They both came from the north of England at a time when industrialism was in its infancy, they both accepted commissions for portraits, and both wanted to be history painters. They were both attracted to what was then called “natural philosophy” and were both on easy terms with men like Priestley and Watt, Dr. Hunter, the Wedgwoods, the Darwins, patrons of a new kind, informed by a scientific optimism which we can no longer share.

When they made the journey to Italy, as both these painters did, it was in a spirit very different from that in which Joshua Reynolds made his pilgrimage to Raphael’s Stanze. Wright came back with color notes…

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