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A Lion Attacking a Horse, c.1762. The painting by George Stubbs
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A Lion Attacking a Horse, c.1762

While the great George Stubbs was most widely recognized for his mastery in equestrian painting, his profound knowledge of anatomy made him the perfect choice to portray the wondrous beasts brought back by British officials from their adventures in Africa and the East. Being so, when Sir George Pigot, Governor-General of Madras, returned to England after passing on his position bringing with him a collection of what he called “wild beasts and curiosities,” he made sure Stubbs was hired to portray the members of the collection in all their glory. Widely recognized for his work in equestrian painting, George Stubbs painted many a commission of famous racehorses, jewels of the stud farms of the British rich and powerful. Still, his career wasn’t restricted to painting paid portraits of race winners. While those were more than able to maintain his lifestyle, Stubbs also dedicated his time and effort to the portrayal of more allegorical themes, not necessarily directly connected to a specific model, but to display his great talent and knowledge of anatomy.

In this 1762 oil on canvas, he does so by confronting his most usual subject matter, a strong and muscular horse, with a beast from distant lands, a fully maned male lion. This painting is, in fact, part of a greater sequence of attempts at the same theme, starting with this piece and ending in 1770, with the paintings’ background becoming more prominent and the animals being dislocated increasingly to the bottom right of the canvas while increasing in detail and anatomical excellence. Due to his recognition os an equestrian and anatomical painter, Stubbs would have been able to access a vast array of Natural History Museums, menageries, and private kennels to study the exotic animal he was so fond of portraying.

What is interesting to note in this first attempt is the difference in detailing between the horse and its nemesis, making it evident that the artist was much more intimate with equine anatomy than he would have been with the feline. While the horse is masterfully rendered, with every fiber of muscle and lock on its mane carefully crafted, the lion has enormous paws that do not seem to respect perspective or proportion. Its fangs look like those of a poisonous snake as it bites into the back of the horse’s lower neck. The lack of proportion between the lion’s body and its legs might indicate that, while Stubbs must have had enough access to the animals to understand their anatomy, he was not able to see them in action and thus had to project how he thought that might look.

Now in possession of the Yale Centre for British Art in Hartford, Connecticut, along with many of Stubb’s most famous paintings, including the two others that derive from this piece, it allows us to glimpse into the learning process of a man who was known in his time as one of the great luminaries of anatomical painting.

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A Lion Attacking a Horse, c.1762 George Stubbs

Item Number: 19763002 show sizes in cm
Painting Price: $359.99
Total Price: $359.99
you SAVE 55% Compared to Local Galleries $647.98
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