Illustrated companion

A large part of Stubbs's achievement can be understood by considering the series of nine paintings of mares and their foals done in the 1760s for various aristocratic patrons, among them Earl Grosvenor, the Duke of Grafton and the Marquis of Rockingham. This series marks one of the high points in English painting in the eighteenth century. The horses are accurate portraits of specific mares (although in this case we do not know their exact identity) famous either for their racing success or as the dams (mothers) of successful racehorses. The extraordinary precision with which the mares and foals are painted, with every vein and muscle visible under the skin, and the naturalness of their poses, are perhaps the most immediately striking things in the picture. This naturalism was based on Stubbs's careful and loving observation of living animals, but also on long and arduous anatomical studies of horses and other animals, including humans. His study of horses was carried out early in his career when he spent about a year, from 1758 to 1759, in a remote farm house in Lincolnshire, dissecting horse carcases, carefully and beautifully drawing the dissections. The results were eventually published in 1766 as The Anatomy of the Horse, with the plates engraved by Stubbs himself because he could find no professional engraver he would trust with the job.

But a closer look at this group of mares and foals reveals that beneath the scientific anatomy and the seeming naturalness of both the individual poses and the whole arrangement of the group, lies a complex compositional structure in which Stubbs's knowledge of classical principles gained on his trip to Italy in 1754, as well as his highly personal sense of pattern and rhythm are in evidence. The three mares and their foals are placed so as to form very roughly a cone, with their rumps marking the perimeter and their heads the apex. This is a 'classical' composition, which gives an overall symmetry and balance to the group. Within this structure, which also gives unity to the group, holding it together, Stubbs beautifully judges the spacing of the mares' heads so that they are just far enough apart to make distinctively individual outlines against the sky but not so far apart that the unity of the composition is lost. He also exploits the beauty of the curves of their necks and backs by silhouetting them against the sky. The spectator's eye is drawn over the whole group in a slow revolving rhythm, across the four rumps, up to the heads and down and round again. The fact that both the foals are feeding looks entirely natural, but it is also, of course, essential to Stubbs's composition.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.41