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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pet Portraits

One of the major developments in painting in the U.S., during the twentieth century especially, is that of animal portraits. Though artists in all cultures from all eras back even to cave painting have, from time to time, painted animals, the idea that a particular animal might be a worthy subject for a portrait is a relatively recent concept. Today, the canine population probably rates the major share of all "pet portraits", as we've come to call them, but cats run a close second in number followed closely by horses. Actually horse portraits have probably the oldest tradition of them all, their popularity going back well into the eighteenth century as owners sought to preserve the memories of their favorite racing equine. And, while not necessarily portraits, the horse, perhaps more than any other animal, has inspired painters' efforts going back hundreds of years before that.     

The Anatomy of a Horse,
by George Stubbs
(Probably not the original cover)
George Stubbs, an English artist born in 1724, was undoubtedly the first to make horses his primary art venue. Not only did he paint horse portraits (individually as well as in groups), presumably from life, but he dissected several cadavers in preparation for a book he published in 1766 titled Anatomy of a Horse.  Actually, he was considerably better at painting horses than he was their riders. Though few of his horse portraits survive today, one particular subject seems to have fascinated him.

A Lion Attacking a Horse, 1770,
George Stubbs

In 1762, Stubbs painted a dark, stormy, violent depiction of a white horse being attacked by a lion. Actually, fascination might be putting it mildly. It seems to have been more of an obsession. Or, perhaps he merely discovered a hot commodity. In any case, versions from 1770 also exist as well as a number of original prints either of a horse under attack, or being frightened by a lion.   

A Lion Attacking a Horse, George Stubbs,
(a later version 1772-76)
Inasmuch as these action paintings are so far removed from Stubbs other work, art historians have speculated that perhaps he might have witnessed such an attack on a trip to North Africa. Others have proposed that he may have made drawings of a lion killing a horse from Roman antiquities during his studies in Italy. More likely is the probability that he sketched the real thing, a lion kept as a curiosity by one of his patrons, Lord Shelburne. Whatever the case, his Lion Attacking a Horse with it's forbidding landscape and violent, stormy background is a powerful attempt to underscore nature's cruelty to man and beast alike. In many ways, his work anticipated the fascination with animals of the French Romantic painters half a century later.   

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