This is one of a pair with Reapers (Tate Gallery T02257). They were the only works Stubbs exhibited in 1786, and his first exhibited pictures since 1782. He had painted earlier versions of the subjects, in oil on panel, in 1783 (National Trust, Bearsted Collection, Upton House). For his second versions, Stubbs improved the compositions, reorganising the groupings and increasing the number of figures from four in Haymakers and five in Reapers to seven in each of the 1785 paintings. He reordered the landscape elements, thereby altering the lighting and overall mood of the scenes. The pictures were most likely based on preliminary drawings made from nature, which he then rearranged to suit the design. Numerous studies and drawings of the subjects were included in the artist's posthumous sale, although they are now lost.
Both the 1785 paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1786, then shown at the second exhibition of the Society for Promoting Painting and Design, Liverpool, in 1787. Stubbs announced his intention to engrave the pictures in 1788-9, publishing the engravings in 1791. He later adapted the subjects to three oval versions painted in enamel: Haymaking, 1794 (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), Haymakers, 1795 (Lady Lever Art Gallery) and Reapers, 1795 (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut).
Picturesque rural subjects were popular during this period, and had been depicted by Gainsborough, Wheatley and Morland and some of the many illustrators of Thomson's Seasons. Stubbs's Haymakers is similar to an oval scene on the same theme painted in watercolour by Thomas Hearne, A Landscape and Figures from Thomson's Seasons of 1783 (Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester). This suggests that the two artists may have studied the same scene, or that Stubbs borrowed from Hearne the images of the girl pausing in front of the haycart with her hayrake upright, the woman raking in hay, and the man on top of the cart. Hearne's picture was exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1783, but Stubbs chose not to exhibit his early versions of Haymakers and Reapers that year, possibly to avoid the inevitable comparisons. The pictures' unsentimental yet sympathetic observation of work in the countryside, with little or no narrative content, is reminiscent of Stubbs's earlier depictions of groups of grooms and stable-lads rubbing down horses. The location of the scenes has not been identified. It is possibly in the south midlands, although such scenes could have been witnessed in fields on the outskirts of London, within a few miles of Stubbs's house at Somerset Street, London. Ozias Humphry noted in his manuscript Memoir of Stubbs (Liverpool Central Libraries) that the artist was accustomed to walk eight or nine miles a day.
Basil Taylor, Stubbs, London 1971, p.213, reproduced pl.103
Judy Egerton, George Stubbs 1724-1806, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1996, pp.166-8, reproduced p.166 in colour
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