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  • George Stubbs
    Aug 25, 1724 - Jul 10, 1806
  • Mares and Foals in a River Landscape - George Stubbs was an English painter who is the greatest painter of horses in British art and arguably the best in the history of art. George Stubbs' subjects may reflect the romantic idealism of their age but they are lifted above the sentimental by their skilful composition and intense observation which generate the gravitas that marks all great art.
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Mares and Foals in a River Landscape
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  • Mares and Foals in a River Landscape

  • George Stubbs
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  • 1768
    Oil on canvas
    102 cm (40.16 in.) x 162 cm (63.78 in.)
    Tate Britain, England.

    Mares and Foals in a River Landscape belongs to a group of paintings of the subject, produced mainly between 1760 and 1769. Painted for various aristocratic patrons, they are accurate portraits of specific mares famous either for their racing success or as the dams of successful racehorses. The naturalism of these works derives from Stubbs's careful observation of living animals and also from his anatomical studies of horses for The Anatomy of the Horse, published in 1766. Mares and Foals in a River Landscape was largely adapted from Mares and Foals without a Background, c.1762 (collection Trustees of the Rt. Hon. Olive, Countess Fitzwilliam's Chattels Settlement), but with the omission of the two central mares from that picture, and the modification of the colour and pose of the far right horse.
    The original idea for the frieze-like arrangement of the early mares and foals paintings may have been suggested by engravings by Matham after Collaert and others, which show animals as if on a stage in the foreground, against generalised backgrounds. For most of his mares and foals subjects Stubbs almost certainly drew the animals from life, perhaps first making numerous studies and then carefully arranging them into an ideal composition; however, no such studies have been located. It is known from an unfinished picture in the series that the artist first painted the horses in perfect detail, stretching them across a blank background like the figures in a classical frieze, before carefully inserting the (probably imaginary) landscape into the background. The resulting complex compositional structure demonstrates Stubbs's knowledge of classical principles, gained on a trip to Italy in 1754, as well as his sense of pattern and rhythm. Mares and Foals in a River Landscape utilises a classical composition which gives an overall symmetry and balance to the group, in which the three mares and their foals are placed so as roughly to form a cone, with their rumps marking the perimeter and their heads the apex. The feeding foals are essential to the composition, allowing the spectator's eye to be drawn over the whole group in a slow revolving rhythm.

    Stubbs exhibited a number of mares and foals pictures at the Society of Artists and the Royal Academy in the 1760s and 1770s, providing an opportunity for patrons to commission such works to include their own animals. It would not have been unusual, given Stubbs's large output in the 1760s, for him to borrow from an earlier composition, but it is remarkable that the patron who commissioned this picture (possibly Viscount Midleton) does not seem to have had any horses of his own portrayed. Possibly he liked the subject, but did not possess any brood mares.

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Other paintings by George Stubbs:

Bay Horse and White Dog
Bay Horse and White Dog
Mambrino (White Horse in a Paddock)
Mambrino (White Horse in a Paddock)
Portrait of a Newfoundland Dog, the Duke of York
Portrait of a Newfoundland Dog, the Duke of York
Horse Attacked by a Lion
Horse Attacked by a Lion
George StubbsGeorge Stubbs was classified in his lifetime as a sporting painter, and as such was excluded from full membership of the Royal Academy. He is best remembered for his paintings of horses and his conversation pieces. Having studied anatomy, Stubbs's pictures of horses are among the most accurate ever painted, but his work is lyrical and transcends naturalism.

Stubbs was born in Liverpool, the son of a leather worker, and he spent his early career in the north, painting portraits and developing his interest in anatomy. In the later 1740s he lived in York and supplied the illustrations for a treatise on midwifery. Following a brief visit to Rome in 1754 he settled in Lincolnshire, where he researched his major publication, 'The Anatomy of the Horse'. In about 1758 he moved to London, which remained his base.

Early clients for his sporting and racing paintings included many of the noblemen who founded the Jockey Club. Like Gainsborough, he later painted scenes of peasant life, as well as studies of wild and exotic animals. He also became known as a printmaker and for his paintings in enamel on Wedgwood earthenware plaques.